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Working time directive: less is more

Limiting hours would lift the burden on women, says Sally Feldman

Are you reading this while feeding the baby, checking your emails, giving your mother her medication and nagging your father to see the doctor about those memory lapses? If so, you’re facing a new “problem that has no name”, according to Anna Coote, head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation. When Betty Friedan first coined that phrase 50 years ago in The Feminine Mystique, she was referring to women’s unspoken frustration with their assumed role as housewives. Today’s version, Coote writes in a paper published this week in the journal Soundings, “is not so much enforced joblessness and domesticity as the combined pressures of paid work and caring”.

Everyone recognises that working mothers have to juggle paid work with looking after their children. What’s often overlooked is that they are increasingly having to care for their parents, too. Just look at the figures. In the next 30 years the number of Britons over 60 could rise by 40 per cent, with a significant increase in the number of 100-year-olds. If your parents are now in their sixties there’s a good chance that they will live beyond the age of 80, and probably far longer.

As soon as the child-rearing finishes, caring for the elderly kicks in, and it is women who still bear the brunt of these responsibilities

The question of how we are to manage the care of a dramatically ageing population has become critical while our middle-aged politicians busily bury their heads in the sand. The Royal Commission on Long-Term Care for the Elderly, a Labour manifesto commitment, recommended 14 years ago that all nursing and personal care be provided for free, but this looks increasingly unlikely. Instead, cuts to local authority and health budgets mean that services for the elderly are being eroded, with their care reverting to their children.

So as soon as the child-rearing finishes, caring for the elderly kicks in. And yes – it is women who still bear the brunt of these responsibilities, which means that the advances we have made since Friedan’s bombshell revelation have also brought new constraints.

So what are we to do about it? One rather novel solution comes from the American writer Lauren Sandler, who in her new book One and Only argues that professional women would be better off if they had just one child: that way all the juggling is manageable.

Her assertion has roused protests from working women and childcare experts who hotly dispute that it is either practicable or desirable. So if the one-child family isn’t the answer, what else can we do to relieve the burden? One obvious way is to work part-time – as long as you are not a doctor, that is.

For according to Anna Soubry, Tory MP for Broxtowe and junior health minister, there are “unintended consequences” to the rise in the number of female doctors. “Well over half of medical students are women,” she explained, “and GP leaders have said that the shift in the gender balance means that the NHS needs to train more doctors…to provide the same level of service.”

Why? Because female GPs tend to work part-time.

Naturally her remarks were greeted with fury. “I cannot believe that women doctors are being blamed for the problems of the NHS,” tweeted Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners. She added: “I have the triple whammy – female, GP and mother. Must go and bow my head in shame.”

In fact, far from being responsible for the crisis in the NHS, part-time doctors are saving it money. One GP I spoke to explained that since she reduced her contract her hours have increased. Surgery days are two hours longer and she is taking more work home, too. This, she said, is common among her female colleagues.

But it is not just part-time doctors who are feeling the extra strain. It is happening in universities, too, where fractional posts are more likely to be taken by women. They also tend to work way beyond their contracted hours. Unless that changes, warns Coote, gender inequalities are bound to continue. What she recommends is an enforced limit on working hours – an idea I have mentioned previously in this column – and a substantial reduction in the cost of paid care.

This policy would narrow the great divide between people working long hours and those who do not work at all. It would tackle inequality at work and in the home. And it would help to eliminate the massive amount of time wasted at work – time defined by Roland Paulsen, a sociologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University, as “empty labour”. This could mean anything from booking a dental appointment to arranging a holiday, playing computer games or taking private calls in the office.

“Seventy per cent of US internet traffic which by the turn of the millennium passed through pornographic sites, did so during working hours,” Paulsen reveals. “And 60 per cent of all online purchases were made between 9am and 5pm.”

Circumscribing working time would also limit wasted time – and even increase productivity. But such an arrangement would require a seismic shift in our culture and in our attitudes to work. Few people would willingly reduce their income, especially as it is still the prevailing view that our salaries define our status, our place in the world. And many high-flyers are driven to be full-on all the time.

Take my friend Marcus, for example. He is a hedge fund manager who habitually slips away from dinner parties to check the status of the yen; who keeps two computers in the bedroom so that he can have instant access to the status of gold bullion or movements in pork belly futures.

Still, despite the alpha males and the culture of the boardroom, Coote remains hopeful – and determined. “It is time to articulate today’s ‘problem without a name’”, she maintains, “as the crucial first step towards addressing the problem and starting the process of change.”

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