Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Chief Executive of Bright Blue.
We often hear from those yearning for yesteryear how, in this modern, liberal world, we are forgetting about family life. Too obsessed with self-fulfilment, we are neglecting our responsibilities to those we should be closest to.
Well, ignore the guilt-tripping from some social conservatives. New analysis of time-use surveys by the Resolution Foundation, out last week, shows that parents in all income groups spend much more time in a typical day with their young children than in the past, thanks in part to technology freeing parents from time-consuming household chores. People are more likely to describe their family as close than decades ago. The majority of young people still say they want to get married at some point.
The marriage rate is down, yes. But people are being choosy, looking for love rather than doing it out of economic necessity or cultural conformity. So, marriages now last longer: the divorce rate has dropped in recent decades and is now at its lowest level for 50 years. If anything, we are seeing the prizing of marriage – so much that the cost and expectations of weddings can be exclusionary.
Enough of the sermonising about the erosion of family values, then. People are putting family first – it is just that there is a greater variety in how they structure and care for it.
Cultural conservatives ought to worry about something else though: too much focus on the nuclear family can fray social bonds. As people in recent decades have increasingly prioritised time at work and at home, it is time with friends that seems to have been squeezed. Time spent at leisure – socialising and hobbies – has in fact fallen since the 1970s for people from almost every demographic group.
Trust in neighbours also seems to have declined. Parents are less likely to let their kids roam in their neighbourhood than in previous decades, resulting in children today having less variety in the outdoor spaces they visit, a smaller range of activities they undertake, and a reduction in the number of companions they have.
Indeed, US conservative commentator David Brooks has posited that the trend of living in nuclear families away from in extended families in the US was a mistake. Any loss in a sense of community and neighbourhood trust in modern Britain, ironically, could well be partly because of the traditional and intensifying focus on family.
Family life does not need saving in modern Britain. But modern families could do with more support, especially in those crucial early years of a child’s life when parental relationships and finances are most fragile.
Those on modest means currently have limited choices, especially if they have young children. Unlike women with glittering careers who can access generous occupational maternity pay schemes, many mums rely on statutory maternity pay, giving them a measly £150 a week after the first six weeks. As a result, lots of women on low incomes return to work sooner than they’d like.
Equally, although both mums and dads can now pretty much access the same length of parental leave, mums are being incentivised to take the time off because they receive significantly more in parental pay. That is because statutory maternity pay provides them with a minimum of 90 per cent of their salary for the first six weeks, whereas the statutory minimum men are entitled to is only the base rate of £150 a week.
To give low-income mums and dads the choice to stay at home with their babies for longer, the Government should be more generous with the base rate of statutory maternity and paternity pay. And, unless completely impractical for an employer, news mums and dads should be given a right to work at home for a set period – call it Parental Time – after the end of maternity and especially paternity leave.
But if and when both members of a couple want to work, childcare costs can be crippling, forcing some parents to stay at home when they no longer want to.
Instead of waiting for a bit more subsidy from the state, the cost of childcare could be made affordable for everyone overnight if all parents had the option to take out government-backed, income-contingent loans to pay. This would be like the loans students get to go to university. Parents would only repay the loan if they were in work and earned above a certain salary.
The issue really isn’t whether people are married or unmarried. A one-earner or two-earner couple. People want and know what is best for their families. Whichever way people want to conduct their family life, policies should be there to support them.