Welcome to a two-tier society

Can't afford agency rates for nannies? Haven't got a spare room? No car? There's only one career open to you: Mum
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IT IS not often that a single advertising campaign contains the germ of an entire social critique, but Beecham has managed it with its winter push for Lemsip Max. The campaign takes advantage of the recent Sydney flu epidemic with a flagship television advertisement in which a middle-aged male executive bursts in on a secretary and asks whether her boss has everything in place for that important meeting on Thursday. She replies that her chap has the flu and won't be back until Monday. He slaps some Lemsip Max on the desk and declares in steely tones that he will be seeing the hapless absentee bright and early on Thursday morning. The poster campaign puts it more straightforwardly: "Stop snivelling and get back to work!"

It may not seem like much, but it's all there. First, the primacy of the workplace. All must be sacrificed so that you can be at your desk, for there is no more important place to be. Second, the continuing distrust between workers and management. Rising absenteeism must point only to a malingering workforce, not to an overstressed one. Third, the contempt private business has for the public services. No one should feel ashamed that a deadly epidemic that has ravaged a weakened National Health Service has become a petty marketing opportunity rather than a blueprint for far- reaching social change.

But who can blame Beecham for paying no attention to the lessons the NHS has to offer us about working practices in Britain today? Few people are. Certainly the Government isn't. More money may be coming the way of the NHS, but that isn't all that's needed. Far more radical strategies are demanded here and elsewhere, but instead we are offered impotent tamperings with the status quo.

Take the Government announcement yesterday that it is setting up a register of nanny agencies in an attempt to reassure working parents that their children are in safe hands. Ministers were previously considering a register of individual nannies, but the idea was vetoed by Downing Street as being too bureaucratic (New Labour code for "expensive") and a restriction of parental choice (New Labour code for "untenable in the socially divided country that we are pleased to govern").

This legislation wouldn't have helped the Eappen family, who lost eight- month-old Matthew, or the Stacey family, who lost five-month-old Joseph, even though it is ostensibly in response to these high-profile tragedies. So whom is it going to help? The nurses who are staying at home to bring up their children not only because they can't afford the kind of childcare that nannying agencies offer, but also because NHS rosters are too inflexible for them to combine work and family? Certainly not.

These new rules will make childcare found through formal channels still more expensive, and top-flight nannies will remain the luxury they were at the turn of the century. And since nurses are already at the bottom of the pay heap, as there apparently isn't the money in the public coffers to fund them, feminism's airy ideas that the next move forward for women is decent state childcare are not just insulting to them, but irrelevant to everyone.

Who looks after the children while women are out seeking equality in the workplace? Poorer women, that's who. And money isn't just a problem when it comes to finding a nanny. Perhaps an au pair is a cheaper alternative, but only if there is room in your ever-more-expensive privately owned house for a live-in help. A shared childminder is a good idea, too, but make sure you keep the car running to ferry them back and forth. Can't afford agency rates for nannies? Haven't got a spare room? Don't have a car? In that case, only one career is open to you, Mum. Better look after your child and someone else's too.

It's an odd kind of feminism that, almost by definition, requires a two- tier system within female society for it to move forward. Where's the equality in a society where some women have to earn a great deal so that they can afford to pay other women to look after their children? How long do we have to persist with this two-jobs-for-the-price-of-one model, ignoring its laughable contradictions and awful social cost?

There is a real alternative, one that the plight of the nurses is screaming at us to consider. It's not surprising that it is within nursing that the difficulties facing working women should be thrown into the starkest relief. Nursing, of course, was historically a female profession, and nurses have been expected to carry on working largely under conditions designed for caring young women who have not yet married and, therefore, live at home with no financial commitments. (Even the career-structure changes that have been made are benefiting male nurses most. They have been finding it much easier to climb the modest ladder that is now in place for them.) Another thing that hasn't changed for nurses is that when they complain they're accused of caring not for their vocation but for career advancement, trouble-making, lefty politicking. Just like the good old days, when a woman who didn't want to give up her career for home and children had something wrong with her.

We cannot return to that nightmare. But what we can do is really start concentrating on the idea that equality, just like charity, begins at home. Let's all - men and women - stop being so macho about work and start seriously considering the prospect of working not a five-day, 40-hour week, but four days a week, or three. Let's all start spending more time with our families, while we still have them. It'll mean a smaller salary, but it'll mean smaller childcare bills, too. It'll also mean, among advantages too numerous to mention, less stress, less absenteeism, less tension between women and men, less unemployment, better parenting and more of that leisure we were once promised in the bright and shiny future that has become our dark and dangerous present.

So what is stopping us? At present Britain has longer working hours than any other country in Europe, and the most recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 25 per cent of the workforce would be happy to work shorter hours for less pay. Research carried out last year by the London School of Economics suggested that even a miserly cut in working hours - to 35 hours a week - would decrease unemployment by a million. Meanwhile stress-related illnesses are out of control, and parents have children whom they hardly ever see (no wonder depression is on the increase among kids). We are work-obsessed while, at the same time, we complain about the dumbing-down of our culture. Who has time to spare to lavish on culture, except cultural workers?

What's stopping us, naturally, are the bods who head up industry. The CBI claims that a shorter working week would reduce profits. But is that necessarily correct? The sectors of the economy that are expanding include leisure, tourism, music, fashion and the service industries. Wouldn't more people working fewer hours mean more customers for these industries and, therefore, further expansion? And wouldn't the redistribution of work rather than wealth mean more people paying lower taxes and a reduction of the burden on the welfare state? Wouldn't we, quite simply, be happier? Or should I just stop snivelling and get back to work?