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Sarah is the Chief Executive of Working Families and has led work-life balance campaigning and culture change for over twenty years. Sarah is an acknowledged expert and has worked across the political spectrum to push for positive change including the right to request flexible working, maternity and paternity leave, and fathers’ rights at work. She is a Trustee of the charity Classics for All and a Fellow of the RSA.

The New Man first entered public consciousness in the 1980s, heralding a change in the way that men, and fathers in particular, were going to do things. Men were going to be more involved in family life, and women would be able to participate more fully in employment as work and care became more equally shared. Society would benefit. 

At least, that was the theory. But in reality, not much happened. Men continued to work full time, and often long hours. Women still did the majority of the childcare, sacrificing their careers in the process. In many households, this is still the case. But there are signs now that a change is really occurring, driven by younger parents, which could have a profound effect on the way that we think about who works and who cares. 

At Working Families we have just published our annual Modern Families Index, a snapshot of the lives of everyday working families across the UK. We ask families about how they integrate work and family life: who works, how much, do they have enough time for work and family, how does work affect family life; what do they aspire to, and how close to these aspirations do they come? 

From over 2700 working parents emerges a picture where we can clearly see that the combination of work and family life is far from ideal. Only one in five families feels that they have got the balance right between the twin currencies of work and the time that they need for their families to thrive. The financial cost of raising a family has, for many, become more difficult over the last few years and the effects of the recession are still a reality for many families with pre-crash incomes yet to recover. 

Many parents are putting in significant extra unpaid hours - the equivalent of up to five weeks extra per year or more in some cases. This has a direct impact at home, with parents reporting that regular activities like helping their children with homework or simply spending time together are negatively affected. Relationships are also tested, with a third of parents saying work demands lead to arguments with their partner. In all, half of parents said that their work-life balance was an increasing source of stress. 

But these negative effects are not just felt in the home. Many parents, especially fathers, had lied or bent the truth to their employers about their family commitments and over a third said they felt resentful towards their employer about their work-life balance. Interestingly, many of these parents also worked flexibly, suggesting that flexible working arrangements are not, in themselves, a panacea when the way that work is organised and structured is fundamentally flawed. 

What parents say that they want is a better balance between work and family life. How they think they can get this is through changing the way they work, and this is where it gets interesting, especially when looking at younger fathers, those oft-cited millennials under 35. Just under half (46%) of younger fathers said they would be willing to take a pay cut to get a better work life balance. And more than half (53%) would be willing to downshift jobs to be able to better balance work and home. Overall, seven out of ten fathers say that they would assess their childcare needs before they accepted a new job or promotion, signaling that career advancement should not come at the cost of family. 

What does this tell us? It shows that fathers clearly have an aspiration to be more involved with family life, especially younger fathers. But to do so they are having to consider the same compromises that women have had to for decades - taking lower paid and lower quality work because they are fathers. We are at risk of creating a Fatherhood Penalty, a kind of perverse equality when parents of both genders are penalised. 

We need to honestly scrutinise work, and the assumptions about who does what. 

The way that families work is increasingly out of step with the way that they want to combine work and life, and it is also out of step with the realities of people's lives. More couples are now both working full time, and the old '1.5' model of full time father and part time mother is in decline . Girls and women now outstrip boys and men not only in school participation and results, but also in further education and training. It makes no economic sense to waste this talent by persisting with a model of work that denies fathers the opportunities to better balance work and life and at the same time confines mothers to a caring role that necessarily limits their workplace opportunities. 

We need to do is get to a point where parents have genuine choices about how they parcel up work and care. How do we get there? Here are two ideas:

  • Support fathers better
    • Create a properly paid period of extended paternity leave to recognise the role that both parents play in bringing up children.
  • Design jobs better

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