Employers need to provide human-sized jobs and to think carefully about what jobs humans can do best in an age of automation, MP Jo Swinson told a meeting this week.
Speaking at a Working Families policy seminar on parental employment rights in Westminster, Swinson, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and former junior Equalities Minister, said that employers had treated people like machines who could work unlimited overtime and whose work could not be interrupted for things like having a family. Automation meant rethinking jobs based on what humans can do that machines can’t with more emphasis on qualities like empathy and creativity. “The case for making those jobs ones that work for people’s lives will become unanswerable,” she said.
Maria Miller, who is chair of the Women and Equalities Committee in Parliament, added that employers needed to challenge themselves to modernise the way they treat people and to treat them as fully rounded humans with a range of caring and other responsibilities. They were still stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries, she said.
David Lammy, who chairs the All-Party Group on Fatherhood, said automation and the hollowing out of middle level jobs would mean a greater reliance on a more compassionate state and more sharing of jobs.
Miller added that Brexit could have a “perversely positive” impact on changing work culture as skills gaps would mean employers had to broaden their talent pool. That would mean a flexible working culture would become central to an employer’s reputation and their ability to attract talent.
The policy seminar began with an outline of the findings of Working Families’ Modern Families Index. It highlighted that three quarters of parents are doing unpaid overtime, whether they work part time or full time, how much work is impinging on family and that many dads are downshifting or stalling their careers just as mums are doing to get a better work life balance. That means many are working below their skill level which has a knock-on effect on productivity, recruitment and the talent pipeline, said Jonathan Swan, Head of Research at Working Families.
The Index also showed that the majority thought they were responsible for their own work life balance. Swan said there was a need to work on changing organisational culture so that flexible working was not considered as something purely for individuals to sort out.
Maria Miller said social change, particularly the huge increase in women working, meant there were growing pressures on family life and added that having more women working was linked to a greater demand for employers and policymakers to focus on rooting out sexual harassment at work and pregnancy and maternity discrimination. The Committee’s work with dads, which will be published shortly, also showed that work culture was stopping dads achieving the work life balance they wanted. Women and men were downshifting and that would affect employers’ bottom line, she stated. “We knew this was an issue for women in the past, but now it is becoming an issue for men too. We hope that that will mean access to flexible working will become a top priority,” she said.
David Lammy said politics was lagging behind social and economic changes. He described the Conservative Party as being stuck in the 1950’s with the model of dad working and mum staying at home – something that only the wealthiest could now afford. Labour was very focused on the rights of women and children. That put all the focus for family issues and the burden on women who were almost having to be superwomen and it meant the fatherhood agenda struggled to be heard. He added that generally there was a focus on flexible working for parents of younger children, but said there were other transitions and issues parents faced such as supporting children to transition to secondary school and mental health problems which also required greater flexibility. “There is a challenge to the political establishment to break out of the old models and into something that feels 2018,” he stated.
Jo Swinson called for greater attention on enforcement of existing rights, for instance, to tackle maternity and pregnancy discrimination. Creating the right work culture was crucial and dads experienced work culture differently than women – for instance, flexible working was less likely to be approved and to be met with a positive reaction.
On Shared Parental Leave, Swinson, one of the legislation’s main architects, said it was always anticipated that it would have a low take-up initially. Change took time and the cost of talent flight if employers didn’t support parents more control over their work life balance was underestimated, she said.
This was echoed by Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families, said: “We have to get real about how long culture change takes and not beat ourselves up. We should celebrate what Shared Parental Leave has meant to those families who have been able to take it.”
However, she added that ideally more reform was needed to allow for dedicated ‘daddy leave’ to boost fathers’ rights. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” she stated.
Swinson added that, in the meantime, there were tweaks to SPL which could be made, such as making it a day one right and extending it to the self employed. Awareness needed to be increased. The panel discussed the importance of enhancing SPL and whether not doing so might be discriminatory if they enhanced maternity pay. Lammy was pessimistic that the Government would increase Shared Parental Pay. Miller emphasised the role of cultural change in making taking SPL acceptable.
There was also discussion of the negative way in which having a family was still viewed. Swinson said that parental leave was still regarded by too many as a burden on employers rather than something that was vital for society generally. “We have to find a way to make it work,” she said.