Workplace on ‘collision course’

Workplaces are failing to keep pace with the changing needs and expectations of families says Working Families chief executive Sarah Jackson.

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Hardly a day goes by without a new headline about the ‘millennial’ generation. But should we believe the hype? Are they really a different species from the rest of us? Well, it seems that, in fact, they are doing things differently when it comes to organising work and family life.

Every year, we publish research on how working parents are managing their time and money. This year, we found that millennial parents – aged under 35 – are markedly wanting to share care between the genders. Seven out of ten millennial fathers work flexibly compared to five in ten fathers aged over 36. Younger parents are also most likely to be willing to make sacrifices in exchange for a better work-life balance – four out of ten millennial parents would consider a pay cut to achieve this.

On the other hand, our research also found that there has been an overall rise in the number of family households where both parents work full-time, and that this is very strongly the case for millennial families, Half of all couple households have both partners working full-time. How does this fit with the desire to share care equally? This could be seen as a consequence of more equality for childcare responsibilities: both parents are able to work longer hours because they have some support from their partner. But the more likely explanation is simply economic necessity.

Workplace collision course

The truly telling thing from our research is that while the sands may have shifted in terms of fathers wanting to play a more active role in raising their families, in many ways the workplace hasn’t caught up. Millennial fathers are the most likely to feel resentful towards their employers – a consistent finding from the last few years – but, at the same time, they’re also the group who are least willing to approach their employer about reducing their hours, working remotely or other forms of flexibility. Workplace culture and employee expectations are set on a collision course.

As we should all know by now, employers get the most out of their staff when they work with the grain of their lives. There’s been a raft of family-friendly employment legislation but, actually, the best approach is to think about flexibility in the broadest sense – we all have a life outside work, and sometimes changes to the way we work would help us better manage our commitments. A big first step would be for employers to adopt a ‘flexible by default’ approach to recruitment: putting the onus on explaining why a role cannot be done flexibly, rather than offering flexibility as the exception. But, if jobs are designed poorly and don’t fit in the hours that are allocated to them then flexible working won’t necessarily help. Employers need to be realistic about the demands they place on employees and, crucially, to build a culture that supports people to raise the issue of workload.

The Modern Families Index gives us a window into the aspirations of younger fathers, but it also underlines the case, yet again, for responsive and agile workplaces. A third of parents told us they feel burnt out or under pressure all the time, and half of parents felt that their working life was becoming increasingly stressful. Many parents told us that when the spillover between work and family life becomes overwhelming, they use sick leave to cope.

The stresses facing modern families remain unsustainable, whether the parents in those families came of age at the turn of the century or not.


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