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More women are working and more were working full time during the pandemic, possibly due to flexible working so why are we making it harder for them now?
According to the Office for National Statistics, women are continuing to increase their hours while men are reducing theirs. Figures released this week show the changing nature of the workforce. Between 1998 and 2022, average weekly hours worked fell by 1.3 hours, reflecting a significant fall for men aged 25 to 49 years who work full time which are not sufficient to offset increases in women’s hours. The ONS says average hours have also fallen because there are more women and older workers in the workforce due in part to pension and benefit changes and they are more likely to work part time. While the same downward trend has also been noted since 2019, the proportion of female workers working full time has increased which the ONS puts down to greater flexibility in working arrangements in part, particularly during the pandemic years ie remote working during lockdowns and hybrid since.
So why are men working in full-time jobs less and how will the push to return to the office more days a week affect the levels of women working full time or staying in the labour market? While the ONS speculates on why women might be more likely to work full time, there is less focus on men’s reasons for working less. It may be that is the result of women working more hours and more sharing of childcare – the biggest rise in women working longer hours comes in the 50+ and the 35 to 49 year old age groups and the biggest falls for men are in the 35-49 year old age group and the 25 to 34 year old group.
There may, of course, be a lot of other reasons. We know, for instance, that mental health issues are a particular issue when it comes to economic inactivity for young men and that burnout is high among middle-aged men for various reasons.
It’s highly liked that there are a complex web of reasons at play, both positive and negative. Just as with women. On the one hand it could be argued that the carrot of greater flexibility and changing social expectations have enabled more women to go to work and to work more hours, but the stick of benefits and pensions changes and the rising cost of living are also likely to have played a significant role. When it comes to flexible working, it will be interesting to note what happens in the next few years amid moves away from remote working by some employers and towards more days in the office. Will that increase in women working full time fall and will we see more women falling out of the workforce and have to redouble our efforts once more to build a world of work that works for everyone – and at the very least for a sizable segment of half the population?