Apparently in the 21st century workers will have to be mega adaptable to change and creative. Whether the current education system, with its focus on targets and its overarching culture of fear of failure, is likely to prepare people for this is a moot point in this week that Year Six SATs and GCSEs begin.
But I’d like to suggest that there is one group of people, who, on the whole, tend to have road tested the kind of skills employers may be looking for more than others. I hate to generalise. In our house there is a rule against “rash generalisations” because life tends to prove the RG wrong. As with English grammar, there is always an exception to the rule. But based on life experience it seems to me that people often learn through doing. For instance, I had no idea how to be a parent when I started this whole parent thing. The same as my partner. I’d possibly read a few more articles on it than him just because I was pregnant and it was my body it was happening to, but reading and experiencing are two different things. On occasion I’d changed some of my half brothers’ nappies, woken up some nights when they were teething and done the odd bit of babysitting, but apart from that I was in the dark. Yet the world seemed to assume that, purely by giving birth, I was going to know what to do. But when daughter one had her first temperature, both her parents went into panic mode until the Calpol took effect. I got slightly better at it, though, mainly because I was at home with daughter one for several months on my own and she wouldn’t let me out of her sight for a second without howling the place down.
So I’m thinking are there particular groups of people who have had to be perhaps more adaptable to change and to creating new opportunities than most in their working lives? Looking at Workingmums’ annual survey, what strikes me often is how many women have retrained in the last one to two years or considered setting up their own businesses. Last year’s survey showed 65% of respondents were interested in retraining and almost a third had retrained in the last year. Many are looking for greater flexibility; many have been made redundant, often as a result of pregnancy/maternity discrimination; but in addition many want a new challenge – a job that, yes, is more flexible, but which allows them to use their skills and progress and which is meaningful to them, whatever that might be. In our recent survey on retraining, over a third of mums said their decision to retrain was spurred by “changed values” and a desire for a more meaningful job.
In addition to retraining, many have set up their own businesses or gone freelance, often working around young children with all the challenges that brings [I’ve done it…]. It’s perhaps getting easier as more people work from home, even if just for part of the week. I remember one woman who had set up a perfume business saying she got a call from the PR manager of a big retailer about stocking her product. She was in the supermarket with two kids at the time. She said she would ring the PR back in 10 minutes and rushed home, plied the kids with chocolate and a video and ran to a quiet room. The PR person said: “Sorry if you hear any noise in the background. My daughter is off sick today and I’m working from home.”
The point is that you have to be adaptable to change, and not just in work. Children change all the time and as soon as you have got used to one stage you have to come to terms with the next. You have to think fast and you have to be prepared for crisis management at all times, even if you have not slept all night the night before the crisis strikes. You often have to reinvent yourself, sometimes – if you have faced any type of discrimination as a result of having the temerity to reproduce – after a period of intense questioning of the very point of anything you have ever done in the world of work. You have to be creative to discover solutions to what can seem at the time like insurmountable problems. You have to stitch together something that works at least most of the time for all the different parts of your life and which pays the bills. That can mean a whole patchwork of jobs that give you a degree of flexibility, but add up to possibly less than half of what you were paid before and entail you working a more elongated day or night.
In short you have to be flexible, creative and resilient. Despite growing moves for greater equality in the workplace and at home, it is still women who are more likely to make the more creative adaptations to their working lives after they have children, although an increasing number of men may resent the fact that they tend to be the ones stuck in more rigid, long hours jobs. Whether women are innately more creative and adaptable than men in general is beside the point. Out of necessity, they hone these skills to perfection, but they often have to take them outside the traditional workplace to have them recognised. One woman I spoke to recently said that she went through a period of thinking she was “worthless” because her employer was not willing to be even remotely flexible after she had her daughter. She went on to found an award-winning international business, fired in part by that rejection and by a burning desire to prove them wrong. Which she undoubtedly did.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.