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Jobs for all, Gordon, but not as you know them

Gordon Brown's vision of full employment is all very well but the future of work is about more than reducing the dole queue. Ann Treneman says that perhaps a woman's place is not in the workplace we know.

For weeks I have felt as if I am living in a time warp. It all started when City high-flier and superwoman Nicola Horlick insisted in her new book that we working mothers can, in fact, have it all. This assumes that we all want five children, a job in which we juggle millions of pounds, a Mary Poppins nanny and a spotless kitchen too. "Can you have it all?" her book asked. All sensible women answered: "No, you go ahead Nicola, we don't mind, honestly."

That, I thought, is that Eighties argument laid to rest. But then Nicola's alter-ego Brenda Barnes - the president of Pepsi-Cola's North American operation - decided to quit her pounds 1.25 million a year job to spend more time with the kids. "Superwoman's coming home - to the family," the headlines proclaimed. "I'm not leaving because my children need more of me," said Brenda. "I'm leaving because I need more of them."

And then yesterday came Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown with his comforting phrases about full employment for the 21st century. Now nobody can be against full employment but I'm not sure the chaps have really thought this one out. Whose employment are we talking here? The commitment was first put by Sir William Beveridge in 1944 and the very phrase conjures up a Britain full of men down the pits and women back in the kitchen. But most of the new jobs now are women's jobs and it is women who are increasingly filling them. It is one thing to reduce the dole queues but that is not enough.

The truth of the matter is that we all have to start thinking about work differently. Gordon Brown has to think about a future where men and women have lives of full employment - and enjoyment - and that is going to require a revolution. Nicola Horlick and all the superwomen out there juggling away need to be seen for what they are: exhausted. And the question we should be asking about Brenda Barnes has nothing to do with why she quit her job. What we should really want to know is why one of the top executives in America felt that she couldn't change her own workplace to enable all of her employees to spend more time with their children. "Hopefully, one day, corporate America can tackle this," she said.

Can it really be so hard to change the workplace culture? A friend once told me about a trek he had taken with a charity into war-torn southern Sudan. They were in the middle of nowhere, the truck had broken down, the sands were shifting and there was a communications crisis. So what did he do? "Had a Pepsi," he said. A Pepsi? "Yeah, god knows where it came from but it was the only thing we had." And it's true: wherever you are in the world there is always a Pepsi. I cannot believe that the people behind this marketing miracle cannot figure out how to get employees to spend more time with their children. But to hear the likes of Brenda talk you'd think it was impossible.

So for a moment, stop listening to Brenda and start listening to Rhona Rapoport. She has just finished a five-year study for the Ford Foundation on how employees can have a life and a job too. The study is refreshing because it tackles the real problem. Home and work first became separated in the Industrial Revolution and to find a new balance between them we need to challenge our core beliefs. We now celebrate the worker who lives for the job: he or she toils 12 hours a day and can always stick around to solve a problem. But why isn't the ideal worker someone who prevents problems happening in the first place and who is so efficient that they and everyone else in their office gets to go home on time?

One of the workplaces in the study was an administrative centre where the work was routine and the hours rigid. The bosses didn't like to allow too much flexibility because they thought productivity would fall. The study changed this: as an experiment it was decided to give everyone flexi- time. The result was that nearly everyone had a different schedule (worked out in their "teams") and that absenteeism dropped 30 per cent. People enjoyed work - and home - a lot more. And in all three workplaces used in the study, productivity went up.

This is the kind of thinking that we should be using when we plan our future of full employment. I want my children to grow up and work in a world where they will not have to make the same choices that I have had to make. Why should they have to juggle their lives and pretend they don't have kids (except on sports days, of course)? Such a future is possible but first we need to quit looking over our shoulders and to see that there is a lot of work to do to make this revolution happen.