The flood of women on to the labour market has been good news for companies seeking flexibility. Patricia Morgan says it is bad news for men and family lifeby / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Those who first framed equal opportunity legislation could not have foreseen the extent to which the monumental structure of male livelihoods which resulted from the industrial revolution would be swept away. Had they known, would they have acted differently?
The data speaks for itself. There are now only 250,000 fewer women with jobs than men. Male wages, especially at the bottom end of the market, have stagnated or declined as women’s wages have risen. The laws of supply and demand ensure that men cannot command the sort of rates they enjoyed when they monopolised the labour market.
The new pattern of short term or part time work is traditionally associated with married women who move in and out of the workforce in response to family requirements. In the past, such jobs used to supplement a main wage; but women are now the primary source of income in as many as 30 per cent of households.
While equality activists still rage at “dominant ideologies” that “sustain male employment,” the support which men, young ones especially, are able to offer families, has been dramatically reduced by levels of job insecurity unprecedented since the industrial revolution.
Most husbands and wives still prefer the man to be the provider of the “family wage” (while also believing that women have a right to seek employment on equal terms). But there are now many communities in which it is very difficult for husbands to establish and maintain families. By the late 1980s, 34 per cent of white American men aged between 20 and 34, and 56 per cent of black men, were unable to support a family above the poverty line. Without a “decent” job, men are undesirable spouses.
Men’s diminishing ability to provide for families has contributed to the high numbers of casual unions and fatherless children on both sides of the Atlantic. The decline of the male breadwinner also accounts for both the increased inequality of family incomes since the late 1970s, and the surge in child poverty. The proportion of children under five whose parents receive either income support or family credit-which supplements the net income of those in low paid employment-stands at around 40 per cent. Among those with children aged between 12 and 15, the figure is 30 per cent.
In the first half of this century, women’s participation in the workforce was concentrated in the years before marriage. The postponement of childbirth as well as the growing availability of jobs in the new health and educational sectors are the main causes of the increase in the number of married female workers which began in the 1960s.
Only 9 per cent of British women who had their first baby in 1945 returned to any paid work within six months; and it took 30 years for the proportion to reach 17 per cent. In 1945, 38 per cent of British women did not work between marriage and the birth of their first child. By the 1970s, the figure had shrunk to 12 per cent. The postponement of babies-and their restriction in number-seemed to offer a chance for couples to build a home on more than just the man’s wage. But a two-income household became increasingly necessary to maintain a decent living standard as costs rose, particularly in the housing market.
The prospect of equal pay and opportunities encouraged more women to take up jobs. As a result, the number of two-income households increased further. Equal rights have influenced every aspect of public life. Initially it meant prohibiting discrimination in employment on grounds of sex. But as the demand for equal opportunity became a demand for equality of outcome, employers turned to positive recruitment to ensure that women were not under-represented.
If the government has any employment policy today, it is the drive towards equality in the workplace. This has been adopted at a time when the government has abandoned the goal of full employment-once the basis for its family support programmes (enshrined in the Beveridge package of the early 1940s). Today, taxation on families has exacerbated the effects of equality in the workplace on a couple’s capacity to support a family. Over the past few decades, the rate of taxation on families with dependent children has increased far faster than taxation on singles, and families with one main earner have borne a disproportionate share of the burden. A family man is now left with only ?4.97 a week more than a bachelor after income tax, and chancellors have been urged to phase out the remaining fiscal recognition for marriage. This, argue the reformers, would help further undermine patriarchal assumptions about men’s financial responsibility for families-considered by feminists to be at the root of the disadvantage which women have experienced in the labour market.
The two-income norm based on equality of the sexes in the workplace makes child rearing an expensive use of women’s time. The higher a woman’s earnings at marriage, the older she will be at the time of the birth of her first child, and the smaller her family will be-if she has one at all. This is one reason why so many women in the media or in middle and upper management have no children. Women now also return to work sooner after and between births. Reflecting their greater opportunity cost, 32 per cent of professional or managerial mothers with a child under five worked full time in 1990-92, in contrast to 1 per cent of unskilled mothers (47 per cent of whom work part time).
Dual career couples have become the yardstick. This “market family” is served up as the model for all couples, and used to evaluate the experience of all working women. Its conception of equality is rooted in the career aspirations of bourgeois women, driven by an ethos of self-development and power.
But, in practice, dual careers make it difficult for couples to co-operate effectively. Even if fathers increase their share of household tasks, each parent has to put in more hours. The price for two full time workers in terms of fatigue, conflict and overload, is immense. The model “market family” is supposed to be wealthy enough to sell off family commitments, but in reality, most families lack the resources to do so.
Modern children are subject to “parental time famine.” Parents not only have fewer children, but spend less time with the one(s) they have; and they spend less time together as a family. Moreover, child care does not give mothers real equality of opportunity in the marketplace, whether with men or with childless women. As Penelope Leach observes in Children First, children place limits on women’s availability for advancement and put them at the top of the stress league. Moreover, even if women pay others to take care of domestic tasks, they still cannot compete equally with those who are childless as they bear the responsibility for organising the running of the household.
There is still a strong preference in favour of the family as the rearer of children. When people are asked to choose what work arrangements they think best for families with children, nearly 80 per cent opt for the mother being at home until the children reach the age of five. Only 3 per cent opt for two full time jobs. As children grow older, the preference shifts to part time work for the mother. Many mothers are already coping with work patterns they regret: around two thirds of dual income families want a parent at home. The experience is international, stretching from the former Soviet Union to Sweden and the US.
There has always been a clash when the altruistic economy of the family, based on sharing, meets the larger economy rooted in competition and the quest for profit. Various safeguards have been devised to shelter the family from full immersion in the industrial economy. One was the “family wage.” Today, it would be dismissed as both oppressively sexist and an artful attempt to restrain trade. But it allowed families to retain some degree of economic liberty and independence from the giant institutions of modern life-whether corporate or state.
Prior to the 1960s, few feminists downgraded child rearing or opposed the family. Feminists did not only advocate the entry of women into the professions and politics, they also wanted measures to foster the special contribution of mothers -arguing that, if mothers had to support families financially, this would amount to a further, unfair burden. Women’s occupational advance and the protection of the family had to be reconciled: the entry into the market of hard-pressed secondary earners was in nobody’s interests. When, in 1924, Eleanor Rathbone called for equal pay and an end to sex discrimination in employment, she insisted that families be compensated for the loss of the man’s “living wage” through the establishment of child and homemaker allowances.
Today, escape from home is, it seems, in everyone’s best interests. From Barnardo’s to the Adam Smith Institute and the National Children’s Bureau-all agree that parental care must be superseded by specialised child rearing institutions. It is assumed that a mother is only out of the labour force or working part time because of the lack of child care. All want to work, need to work and must work, given the falling birthrate, rising male economic inactivity and earlier retirement. Any reduction in women’s workplace efforts is seen as a waste of “human capital.” Any expenditure on getting mothers to work promises to pay for itself-by providing a stream of tax and insurance contributions for the government.
Inseparable from these demands to complete women’s “marketisation” is the assumption that only achievement at work can determine status and fulfilment. Modern feminism, which sees the family as the source of subordination and inequality, has brought about a curious synthesis of Marxism and free market ideology. As people can no longer depend on family or community networks, the care these used to provide has entered the cash economy.
The truth is that huge amounts of unpaid labour necessarily underpin industrial economies. The social infrastructure created by domestic work would involve very significant investment if it had to be provided by nurseries, counselling, hospitals, health centres, canteens, policing and so on. But there are limits on the ability of state institutions or market agencies to provide human care-if budgets are not to break and people are to thrive.
The family’s early attachments are the basis of human culture, and child rearing lies at the heart of the relationships, obligations and responsibilities which allow societies to function. The market and the state are also sustained and subsidised by this moral economy. Both trade off social capital they cannot generate. Many take a sombre view of the way in which global capital is now given free rein to destroy the social fabric, as the support which once sustained family and civic institutions is withdrawn. But others cheer on, as the market economy scoops up female labour. Women’s time has come at last.