Leading Article: Culture of work faces family revolt

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The Independent Online
HERE IS a big notion: that the revolt against work could be the driving force behind the politics of the next decade. While the Prime Minister has been looking for a popular theme to give his "project" the same staying-power as Thatcherism, perhaps the answer has been closer to his two-earner home than he thought. Remember that the politics of Thatcher and Reagan were born in the taxpayers' revolts of the Seventies. In Britain it was the spectre of the 98 per cent marginal rate of income tax; in California it was Proposition 13, which blocked any rise in state or local taxes in 1978.

That kind of driving force has been missing in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, especially since Bill Clinton and Tony Blair reconciled their parties of the left to the end of "tax and spend". But perhaps we are already witnessing the next great issue on which the electorates of Britain and other industrialised nations will say, "Enough!" and demand a political response.

We report today that most working people in this country make sacrifices at home for the sake of their jobs, with half regretting that they missed their children growing up or that they put work before their families. "I hardly saw my children when they were younger. I never changed their nappies, I never fed them, I never got up in the night when they were crying because I was always exhausted from the day's work," says Paul Giggle. "Basically I was never there."

There is a big division between the sexes in how they balance the demands of work and family: on the whole, women do and men don't. But what is important is that this is an issue which has moved beyond the early arguments of feminists, in which the interests of men and women were assumed to be opposed. Younger men and younger women say they are not prepared to make the sacrifices for their careers that previous generations have made. Young men do not want to end up with Mr Giggle's regrets; young women are under no illusion that they can compete with men on equal terms in a work culture of long and inflexible hours.

A great revolution is occurring, but, as with any transition, there will always be conservatives for whom the glass of flexible parenting is half- full, while for radicals it is half-empty. Fathers already expect to be involved much more in their children's upbringing and to be fulfilled by that involvement. But it is still women who do the housework, even when both partners are in full-time paid employment.

Biology is one thing. But just because a woman takes a career break for birth and early nurturing it should not be assumed that she will always do the children things. Men's attitudes need to change more. But we are reaching a point where both men and women can see that it is in the interests of all for the culture of the workplace to change. This is not like the taxpayers' revolt in the sense that it is not so immediately in the Government's power to respond to the demand for flexible, family-friendly ways of working. But the state is a big employer and there is still much that the law can do to encourage flexible working. Futurologists have always predicted a dramatic reduction in working hours, and they have always been wrong. Perhaps in the 21st century they will at last be right.