Slaving away at it all

Work-life Balance Week: Choices? What choices?

Gemma Forest

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Topics Politics

To Claridges, for a lunch given by the Work-Life Balance Trust and sponsored by Investors In People, Vodafone, BT, Ford, and the Department for Education and Skills. It was Work-Life Balance Week last week, and as we gather on 4 September, all the Trust’s organisers thank each other for flouting every rule of work-life balance by killing themselves getting PR in The Times (London).

Lindsay Nicholson, editor of Good Housekeeping, wins an award for efforts to promote work-life balance among her employees at the National Magazine Company. She says that she first met Shirley Conran, the president of the Work-Life Balance Trust, at a Women in Journalism meeting decades ago. The chair of Women in Journalism herself today, Nicholson is introduced by Investors in People as somebody who has suffered (unspecified) personal tragedy in her life. So, confessing that she had a workaholic dad with whom she never repaired her relationship, she goes on to urge companies to think outside the box and challenge the old ways of working.

The October issue of her magazine is full of the dreadful consequences of the old ways. One in every eight women who work full-time says it has led to a relationship break-up. One in three working mothers says her work has made her child unhappy. Nearly half of all women full-time workers say their sex life has suffered because of poor work-life balance; similar numbers have knowingly sent a sick child to school rather than ask for time off work (1).

Next on is Patricia Hewitt. Minister in charge of the Department of Trade and Industry, she is the force behind the April 2003 legislation empowering workers to ask their employers for flexible working arrangements. She admits to having double-income workaholic parents, which in her native Australia in the 1950s was regarded as odd. She also met Shirley Conran way back, and fondly remembers her prescient aphorism, ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’.

Now, she says, many businesses ­ as well as the Inland Revenue ­ are tending to 24-7 work. That’s fine, says Hewitt, but it has a downside. Her new legislation was big potatoes in the Commons this year; now the task is to spread the message. That is why she congratulates Good Housekeeping for what she describes as its ‘disturbing’ survey. She points out that the paid paternity leave afforded by her legislation was anyway designed to reinforce the imperatives of work-life balance to errant fathers. She looks forward to evaluating the results of her social experiment in three years’ time; and her general demeanour suggests that, in 2006, the government’s evaluation of how we manage our time will be a searching one.

All goes well till this point, but then it is time for questions. One person in the audience points out that if 18 per cent of the population are parents eligible under the new legislation, there’s an equal percentage who are busy caring for elderly or disabled relatives. Hewitt is accommodating: work-life balance legislation for carers will, she hints, one day supplement that for parents.

Someone else now tries to catch her out a little. A man notes a recent discussion paper from Pricewaterhouse Coopers, a firm not known for sentimentality, which argued that a government investment of £3billion a year to provide universal childcare for one- to four-year-olds in the UK would save the country £40billion over 65 years (2). Would the minister support the Coopers approach, especially since one of the old slogans of the women’s liberation movement had been 24-hour nurseries?

Hewitt demurs. Children, she says, already get a lot of support from the government, what with tax credits and the like. Warming to her theme, she continues that to insist, like the old feminists, that every parent leave their children at nurseries all the time is wrong. Childcare is not the only solution to problems of work-life balance: people want choice, and are now conscious that failure to be around one’s children does them damage.

So this, I thought, is where the Spare Rib, Nova feminism of the 1960s has come to. Terence Conran’s influence on the high street has been enormous; Shirley Conran’s on New Labour doctrine has been underestimated. At the lunch, Hewitt praises women in the trade unions for their role in shifting the labour movement from confrontations with employers on wages to collaborations over skills and flexible work schedules. But a decent nursery system for this country? That she discounts, now, as a restraint on everyone’s freedom to juggle the competing priorities of great career and perfect parenthood.

In reality, of course, work-life balance is not about Hewitt’s ideal of personal choice. On the one hand, it is government policy to play up the merits of the work side of work-life balance. As chancellor Gordon Brown has repeatedly made clear, the whole population must be made to work for the good of society. Indeed, getting young mothers out to poorly paid jobs has been one of the chancellor’s chief objectives, while ministers and policymakers castigate stay-at-home mums for neglecting to make a work-based contribution to their own ‘social capital’.

On the other hand, soothing official words about work-life balance merely disguise the commandment that Thou Shalt Be A Responsible Parent. Thus, introducing a new green paper on child protection, Every Child Matters, prime minister Tony Blair said that governments should not influence the way parents bring up their children (3). Yet the paper makes clear that the government plans:

  • a national helpline, or ‘virtual advice bureau’, for parents;
  • family learning programmes;
  • support programmes for fathers;
  • home-visiting programmes to check on pre- and postnatal mothers;
  • education programmes targeted particularly at the parents of five- to eight-year-olds;
  • stress and relationship counselling (4).

All of this will be done to ensure that parents are not left to bring up their kids as they see fit, but, rather, are kept in continuous contact with state bodies that claim to be expert in ‘parenting’. In practice, then, lullabies about work-life balance simply form a new prelude to that old dream of middle-class feminists ­ that of Having It All.

In its New Labour version, Having It All means having it all to slave away at, all the time. It means that women across society must learn to be both dutiful workers and obsessive parents, sans nurseries. What a breakthrough for choice this is!

(1) Allison Pearson, ‘Yes, life’s tough for working women but at least there’s a glimmer of hope’, Good Housekeeping, October 2003, pp 49-52

(2) ‘Universal childcare provision in the UK ­ towards a cost-benefit analysis’, PricewaterhouseCoopers, August 2003

(3) ‘Every child to have official file and unique identity number’, Alexandra Frean, The Times, 9 September 2003, p4

(4) Every child matters, Department for Education and Skills, , p40-42

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