LONDON: My son recently asked an interesting question.
“Daddy, do you like your job?” Yes, said my husband, he did. “Well, I don’t like mine,” came the reply.
Enigmatic and sometimes fabricated statements are par for the course when living with pre-schoolers, but this was more baffling than most. My husband inquired what the job was that our son thought he did.
“My job is nursery,” the 3-year-old said.
My husband and I both work full-time in demanding jobs with long commutes. For most of the week, neither of us sees the most precious person in our lives, and when we do, we tend to be drained, peevish and arguing over who is most tired.
We are part of a growing trend: Between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of “dual full-time earners” increased from a quarter of UK families to almost a third, according to research published in 2016 by social scientists at the University of East Anglia.
Over the same period, the more traditional model of 1.5 workers per household (usually a full-time father and part-time mother) became less common, dropping from 37 per cent of families in 2001 to 31 per cent in 2013.
Professor Sara Connolly, one of the report’s authors, says preliminary data suggested the trajectory has continued, with dual full-timers accounting for 34 per cent of households in 2015.
This is a remarkable shift. As recently as 1985, only 29 per cent of working-age women in the UK worked full time.
MORE PARENTS WANT TO SPEND MORE TIME WITH FAMILY
From the perspective of governments looking to eke out every last drop of productivity from labour markets, the rise of dual full-time families looks like a good thing.
And there is a secondary economic benefit: The more time both parents spend at work, the more they outsource other tasks, from childcare to laundry, cleaning and cooking (witness the success of inordinately expensive recipe kit boxes). New demand is created.
But it comes at a cost. According to the 2018 Modern Families Index, a survey of 2,760 working parents across the UK published by the charity Working Families:
Parents and carers are struggling to find the flexibility and the control over working time that they need to support family life.
The survey suggested 18 per cent of parents were deliberately stalling their careers as a result, and 13 per cent had left their job for a role that suited family life better.
Interestingly, those most likely to say they wanted to downshift jobs in the next two years for a better family or work balance were young fathers.
AI CAN HELP LIGHTEN THE LOAD
Two buffers enable the dual full-time model to work smoothly. One is a grandparent (or two) who lives locally and can help out. Another is independent wealth that can be spent on wrap-around childcare, housekeeping and rush-home-in-time-for-bedtime taxi fares.
Minus these advantages — and let’s face it, most have neither — it is tougher to manage.
My sense is that good answers to these challenges will not be found by simply tweaking at the edges of the status quo, nor by companies talking positively about “flexible working” while only making it available for a select few.
As the young Dutch thinker Rutger Bregman argues in his 2016 best-seller Utopia for Realists:
We have to direct our minds to the future, to consider alternatives.
Mr Bregman argues for a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. Personally, I would start with a four-day week and enlist robots to fill the gaps.
After all, we are all worried about the approaching wave of automation. But what if part of the answer to the AI revolution was to hand over the most repetitive tasks in our working week to robots and take a full, paid day off every week to spend with our children, or with ageing parents, or to pursue a hobby, volunteer or take part in local politics? Or just read a book?
I am mostly joking about the robots; unfortunately that is not how automation works. But we must start thinking imaginatively about what we want from work — and from our lives.
In my household, there are times when all three of us feel overwhelmed by our jobs. The looming threat of obsolescence makes now a good time for a rethink.
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