Why career couples must review job 'portfolios'

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The Independent Online
FOR THE past 30 years the pattern of work demanded by most employers has become increasingly devastating for family life. If people want to be successful in a typical company they have to work 60 hours a week, travel around the world at no notice, and spend their 'spare' time entertaining customers. The only ways to combine such a lifestyle with a family are to subcontract much of the caring - which rather defeats the object of family life; or to have a non-working spouse.

But to make matters worse most families are now dual-career. Only about 5 per cent of UK households consist of a husband, one or more childen and a non- working wife.

The recession obviously puts a premium on families having the security of two incomes. But it is also speeding up a change in the job market that should make it more practical for at least one partner to combine work and family.

At this stage of the economic cycle hardly a day passes without news of redundancies, but all past experience would suggest that when unemployment stops rising the new jobs will be different from the old. They will not be at the companies now shedding labour. Just about every large British company plans to employ fewer people in three to five years' time. Instead, the new jobs will either be at small companies, some of which do not even exist at the moment, or they will not be 'jobs' as such - more people will choose self-employment.

The more that companies pare down the numbers of their full-time workers, they more they find themselves forced to hire the services of those whom they have just declared redundant. It may not be the same people but the functions are the same. These might be unskilled jobs, such as stacking supermarket shelves at weekends, but many are highly skilled: in economic and management consultancies, accountancy and legal services, speech- writing, design of corporate literature and so on. At the moment a typical British company employs directly about 60 per cent of its labour force; the rest are part- timers or consultants. This proportion is shrinking by one percentage point a year, so that by the end of the century half a company's employees will be core staff.

This change suits companies, for it allows a more flexible cost structure. It also, often, suits individuals: they may be more secure if they have a number of customers who buy their services, rather than a single employer who can sack them.

This changing pattern of work is now fairly well understood. It has been chronicled, in particular, by Charles Handy, visiting Professor at the London Business School. Last week, he was talking to a seminar organised by One Plus One, a charity that conducts research on marriage and partnerships. One of the points he made was that the necessary lifestyle of core workers in business fits very badly with the growth of dual-income professional families.

Inevitably, many companies are still organised this way. Company pensions are designed for people who work for one company and then retire at 60 or 65, despite the fact that only about 2 per cent of private sector employees spend their entire working life with a single employer. The Foreign Office still expects ambassadors' wives and other spouses to provide extensive unpaid support to their husbands, though it is well aware of the problem. Multinationals still find it difficult to fit in with the needs of people whose spouses have important jobs and cannot relocate around the world. As a result, employers lose good people. The more enlightened are now putting a great deal of work into trying to adapt their work practices to the new norm.

If companies are finding it hard to adjust, so, too, are people. The present generation of thirty and fortysomethings is the first where dual-income families are the norm, and is having to learn how to manage its relationships. The 60-hour week was never conducive to marital harmony, but it is even less so if both partners have to work it. Yet in theory at least, the growth of what Professor Handy calls 'portfolio' workers - those with customers rather than jobs - should create opportunities for couples to have interesting jobs, be well paid, and still be able to manage family life. Being self-employed does not mean working less hard (many would say they work harder) but it does give control over the use of one's time.

To do this, however, will need careful career planning and a renegotiation of the 'who does what' element of the partnership contract. It might mean one partner 'going portfolio' at one stage and then returning to the job market later while the other moves out. This may mean one side sacrificing the power of a top job for the more amorphous influence of some consultancy position.

There is a powerful practical argument, given the uncertainties of the labour market, for one partner of a couple going portfolio. One of the most common stories of the recession is the wife's part-time income paying the mortgage when the husband loses his hitherto well paid job.

That is an example of an unplanned and unpleasant renegotiation of partnership roles brought on by recession. Planned properly, the combination of greater job uncertainty and greater scope for portfolio work could combine to strengthen the case for pair-bonding. The harsher the climate outside, the greater the need to huddle together for warmth.