Divide and conquer: the high price of the UK’s failure to support working parents

Two new books set out why the UK is not set up for parenthood and how it needs to change.

man and woman getting a divorce

Couple with divorce contract and ring on desk. Divorce

Parenthood in the UK is “economically unviable” for the average parent, according to a new set of two books argues.

The books, Divide and Conquer, are written by former husband and wife Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson, aka Mother Pukka and Papa Pukka, well-known social media campaigners for flexible working.

The books, published by the Pound Project, are short on words – perfect for time-pressed parents – but big on shared passion, despite the fact the couple are divorcing. They are dedicated to the couple’s daughters and to “making it all easier for the next generation”.

Divide

Divide outlines the case for why we need change. It starts by declaring: “The ways families are required to exist today do not work.” First Anna outlines the kind of day many of us have experienced which involved arriving late at nursery due to a transport-related incident and being fined. She had a meltdown. Then she decided to ask her employer for a little flexibility over her hours so she could account for the odd transport-related problem. Just 15 minutes. She was told that would encourage others. She felt she had no choice but to quit and go freelance. She says that put pressure on her relationship and her sense of self.

Eventually, due to her flex campaign, her husband became the prime carer, but that created some sense of resentment. Her parents helped out with childcare, but Anna felt guilty about asking them. She says the childcare difficulties “leave families and relationships divided”.

Matt then writes about the post-Covid backlash against flexible working and the lack of imagination and caution that he says characterises many employers who are unwilling to see past the 9-5, even when it is isn’t working for many in the workforce.  He says if employers are worried about some workers slacking when working remotely, they should give them a warning and then force them to come in, but not punish the entire workforce, given the evidence shows mainly positive results for people working flexibly.

Conquer

So how can we change things and make them better for so many in the workforce? The Conquer book begins with Matt announcing the authors’ divorce. “We had been defeated by circumstance and stubbornness”, he writes – not just childcare and inflexible working, but those certainly seem to have contributed to the stresses. He describes how they decided on joint custody – one week on, one week off – and a nesting arrangement. 

Matt then goes on to explore why the UK has such high childcare costs and why it spends so little of its GDP on childcare and education compared to many other European countries. He touches on tweaks that could be made now – better use of school buildings, suspending business rates for childcare providers, reforming the funding support system and greater availability of flexible working.

He outlines responses to some of the main reasons employers give for turning down flexible working, for instance, if people work remotely how will employers know what they are doing [answer: by measuring their output]; if one person is granted flex won’t everyone want it [each case should be judged on its own merits]; if people work remotely they are less efficient as we’ve seen in Covid [Covid working was not the same as normal working]…Matt says men have a responsibility in particular to press more for flexible working and to take their paternity leave in order to normalise it and share parenting responsibilities more equally.

Anna then takes up the reins. “Raising the next generation in the UK feels akin to a relentless and demanding side hustle”, she says, due to the lack of support from policymakers for families, compared to countries such as the Netherlands where Anna lived when her first daughter was tiny. She talks about the impact of care infrastructure failings on the gender pay gap. She ends: “Without childcare as part of our infrastructure, woven into the very fabric of our working world, there is on choice. And without choice there is no equality. And that’s the bottom line. It is a high cost, indeed.”

*To order a copy of the books, go to https://www.poundproject.co.uk/.



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