Well might Karren Brady (above) exhort new mothers to get back to work quickly.
If they can afford the childcare, and deal with the accompanying mental wrench, they would perhaps be wise to do so. Because the recession is hitting women in particular, and those in work should probably not consider rocking the boat. This is not special pleading. It is simply the case.
A Radio 4 documentary I have made looks at how the so-called “squeezed middle” across the country is coping. My interviewees were not claiming poverty; in their words, they were “skint”, with no cash to spare, no savings, and fears about the future. They were indignant that it seemed to be the middle class – and its women in particular – who were suffering most.
“It is a female issue. It is a feminist issue,” says Anna, who works at a literacy development agency in Newcastle and has just adopted two small children. “It is something which curtails women’s ability to invest in their career.” Childcare costs, in particular, she feels, are a huge hindrance.
“I wonder if it’s because of the career choices we made,” says her friend Suzy, who runs a local book festival and assures me she is dressed completely in charity shop gear. “We didn’t go and work in insurance. We didn’t go and do whatever you should to get into a Proper Job, that gives you pensions and a salary.” Indeed, it would seem that “female jobs” – arty, creative, inessential – are the first casualties of a global recession.
“We are in it for the long haul,” says Anna. “All those benefits we used to enjoy are not going to be reinstated. Swimming pools, child benefits, university grants, cheaper petrol, utility bills.”
In County Durham, Caroline considers that she now leads a life of drudgery unknown by her mother and grandmother. “I was part of a generation of young women who went to university in the early 1980s. I was told I could have it all. I thought I could have a cleaner and go out occasionally.” She laughs bitterly. “Let me tell you what I do now. I make all my own bread, because it saves me £10 a week. I can save a huge amount of money by making bread, and having no cleaner, and lurking by the chuckout aisle in the Co-Op and seeing what I can do with spinach today.”
Meals out, nice food, a cleaner, beauty treatments, new clothes; things that some women might typically consume and which fuel many local economies – all of these have been abandoned. “It’s not such a hardship, but it just makes me really angry, cleaning the house,” says Helena from Winchester. “I think ‘I didn’t go to university for four years in order to do this.’ It sounds terrible, but it does make me really angry.”
Listen up, Mr Osborne. There are an awful lot of voters out there who feel this way.
‘Stories from the Squeezed Middle’ is on Radio 4 on Monday 6 May at 11am