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The Modern Families Index 2017

The 2017 Modern Families Index provides a fascinating picture of life for working families across the UK. Where family life and work meet is a complex boundary that is shifting for many families. Parents’ ideas about what is achievable and desirable are evolving; many fathers, for example, now say that they weigh up career decisions in the light of their childcare responsibilities just as most mothers do. But it is not just changing social attitudes that affect the way parents navigate work and home. The world of work is changing, too. The Index shows very clearly that for many, work absorbs a large proportion of their time, and that this is not always a positive choice. Financial pressure and work pressure combine to erode the edges of family life, whilst also
affecting individual wellbeing. Parents are very clear: family is the most important thing to them, but the twin currencies of time and money they need for their families to thrive are not available to them. Only one in five families feel they are getting it right. This is cause for concern – and a call to action for positive change.

What might this change look like? The Index provides us with some strong pointers. One is the need for better opportunities for fathers to make real work-life balance choices. Many are concerned that their workplace culture means flexible employees are seen as less committed. To avoid the clear emergence of a ‘fatherhood penalty’, where men’s careers are stalled or side-lined as they try to find roles they can combine with family life, employers need to ensure that work is designed in a way that helps women and men find a good work-life fit. Viable options for flexible working, and a dose of realism when it comes to what can be done in the hours available, must be a central part of this. And honest conversations between employer and employee about both are vital. This in turn will help with the equalising of care between genders: women are still doing more than men, and workplace culture continues to reinforce these traditional gender roles even if parents feel these roles are increasingly out of step with their lives and aspirations.

Parents are clear about the benefits brought by a more balanced fit between family life and work. Life in more ‘time-wealthy’ families is less pressured, relationships are under less strain and wellbeing levels are higher. But these benefits are not just one way traffic - all for parents and children. It is clear from what parents tell us that benefits will accrue to employers who nurture a work-life balance culture within their organisation. They will reap the rewards of a more loyal, motivated and productive workforce, and the costs of absenteeism, stress and increased staff turnover that result from inflexible workplaces can be avoided. A first step on the path to achieving this is for employers to ensure that all employees can trust that they can have an adult to adult honest conversation about work and working life without worrying about whether they will be seen as less committed.

For any employers and policy-makers uncertain about the advantages of engendering better work-life balance in the UK labour market, the evidence here is compelling.