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Your job, or your children – why must we choose?

The economy is still inimical to family life

A few days ago, talking to a young pregnant woman, I was appalled by how little had changed since I had my first baby 30 years ago. She was wondering how best to bring up her child and go on achieving in her job, mildly shocked that she even had to confront the question. (We, at least, had been only too aware of the dilemma that was looming). For all our talk about women in the workplace, and for all that girls are now brought up to feel they can do anything, the economy is still not set up to help families.

Cherie Blair has argued this week that governments and employers need to do more to help people to move in and out of work and caring roles. She suggests state-subsidised apprenticeships (returnerships, she calls them) for people wanting to get back up to speed with working life. She regrets trying to beat men at their own game by working long hours when she had young children, seeing it less as beating the system than reinforcing it.

She is right to be sceptical about a working culture that assumes we are individuals without responsibility for others. We may talk about family-friendly workplaces; we may depend on women workers; yet we still have an economy that is inimical to family life.

The long-hours, always-on culture is damaging to families, especially when both parents now have to work pretty hard just to survive. Meanwhile, for my generation, there is a looming crisis, as the empty-nest years we hoped to spend doing interesting work threaten to be eaten up by caring for elderly relatives.

Women still bear the brunt of trying to do everything. The Department for Work and Pensions reports that women’s wages fall relative to men’s for a decade following the birth of their first child. Mothers are leaving professions requiring more than 50 hours’ work a week.

This makes no economic sense. Goldman Sachs has calculated that increasing women’s participation in the workforce to that of men would raise GDP by 8 per cent. More than half of those studying for higher education degrees are women; why subsequently make their lives impossible?

This is not an argument for everyone to be working all the time. My daughter’s generation don’t necessarily want to live the same way. But they wouldn’t need to if we thought more radically about working lives. Why, with an ageing population, is there so much emphasis on our thirties and forties, which are also the childbearing years? Why do we have to conceive of lives as a climb up to the top, then a fall? Why is part-time so often second best?

Some things have improved since I had my  first child (more nursery places, for a start). But the central dilemmas remain, as acutely as ever, and affect even more women. And they will, for  as long as we assume that families exist to serve the economy, rather than the other way around.

Geraldine Bedell is the co-founder  of Family Innovation Zone