Less Work, More Play

There is a bold answer to Britain's childcare crisis that would improve the lives of parents, children and nursery workers: a shorter working week.

The problems with the childcare system in the UK hit me like a train once I returned to my full-time job after a year of maternity leave. I found out that childcare in this country is prohibitively expensive, underpays its staff, and feels like a clumsy afterthought to the world of work.

High childcare costs are often discussed, but what’s mentioned less often is why these high fees don’t trickle down to the nursery workers who power the sector, the vast majority of whom are women. At the nursery my family uses, staff are paid not much more than £15,000, and many rely on overtime and second jobs in the evening to get by.

As is usually the case with feminised labour, low pay is endemic – and as we at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) reported in 2017, government policy is keeping it that way. The 30 hours of ‘free’ childcare guaranteed by the government has left nursery budgets short, with the cost pushed onto nursery workers through capped wages, or back onto the parents through hidden fees. 

Though the details of childcare business models are hard to come by, it’s estimated that frontline staffing represents over half of nursery costs. Money is also funnelled out for rent, director pay, business rates, and in many cases, investor returns. In the UK, the private sector provides 84% of childcare for kids under 3, with 5-6 big international firms dominating the market. Investors and private equity firms expect returns – a similar set up to our social care model which requires millions of pounds of public funds to shore up investor returns. Are we heading this way with childcare too?

It’s infuriating that as a working parent I rely on the low paid work of other women to access childcare: at a huge cost to me, without proper wages for them. Even with this model my partner and I can only afford three days of childcare per week; despite us both working full-time, full-time fees would take up a third of our household income. 

Flexible Work and Gender Equality

Increasing numbers of women are moving into self-employment, partly drawn by the potential of a more flexible approach to work. But flexibility doesn’t always mean autonomy over pay and time. Even when we work for ourselves, we get paid less: the gender pay gap persists even for women in self-employment. 

And flexibility doesn’t necessarily help with caring. The Labour Party recently announced a new policy giving everyone the right to flexible hours from their first day in a job. Hailed as a positive move for gender equality, if implemented the impacts would likely be mixed. Flexible working policies can enable parents with children to work – but when we rely on individuals’ personal choice to make decisions about labour patterns in this way, it tends to be women, not men, who opt for part time and flexible work to meet care needs, reinforcing existing care-related gendered labour inequalities. 

A more transformative approach would be to look at how to change the structures and values embedded in our work culture: creating a new norm for less work for everyone rather than relying on personal choice to alter working patterns. 

Shortening the working week for all employees in a particular workplace or sector, without a reduction in incomes, would enable people of all genders to pursue their working lives whilst also freeing up more time for caring commitments. Though a 30 hour working week isn’t going to undo patriarchy overnight, our current work dogma where “choice” over working hours is predetermined by income levels and gender is doing us no favours on that front: women are overrepresented in forms of insecure work like zero hours contracts, and year on year women need to work 67 more days than men to earn the same amount. 

In the UK we work some of the longest full-time hours in Europe. This culture of overwork has produced a model of childcare that disproportionately degrades the working lives of women. It is transactional and private: it feels very much like a paid-for service and is kept hidden from our working lives.

Overcoming these issues requires a holistic approach – embedding childcare in the social fabric of our communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces to bring costs down, ensuring more money goes into staff pay and improve the quality of care overall. Redressing work-life balance is a key component of this.

More Time to Care

At NEF, we are working on a number of projects with this in mind. One of these is a parent-led nursery in south London based on a model that embeds childcare in the community and improves affordability by combining professional workers earning a living wage with the experiences of parents. This Friday we will be involved in another, when we host a free play and stay coinciding with the women’s strike.

Community, parent-led and cooperatively owned nurseries are much more common in other countries, like Germany and Canada, where the involvement of parents makes savings on overheads, allowing more money for staff wages. A shorter working week goes hand-in-hand with the ambition to transform services like childcare into something more active and social in this way. Parents and others need to invest time, which many don’t currently have, to make the models work.

Balancing the time spent caring and time spent working can also be recalibrated not just in terms of a working week, but in terms of the amount of time we all spend in and out of work. One example of this would be approaching retirement in a more gradual way. This could be achieved by using generational agreements where older workers have the right to move towards shorter paid working hours, but don’t lose the equivalent in pay.

That approach could allow more grandparents to actively participate in caring for their grandchildren, and even participate in running cooperatively-owned childcare provision. This would be in contrast to the current approach of ‘gran-nannying’ (regular childcare provided for free by grandparents), which too often keeps the burden of care on women and is used by policy-makers as a crutch to prop up a broken childcare system.

Employers have a role to pay in footing the bill for childcare – 80% of parents agree. This could take the form of embedding workplace crèches within their buildings, which would save time by preventing the double commute faced by many parents. Such an approach could also help making the work of care visible, and even in improving the standards and pay of childcare workers alongside other employees.

Shorter working hours don’t just stand to benefit parents, but the nursery workers too. In 2001 a comparative study found that the reduction to a six-hour day (30 hour working week) of Swedish childcare and health workers resulted in better health and wellbeing, less sick days and better staff retention. 

The work and childcare crises we face require bold solutions. This month NEF kicks off a new project with unions and businesses to debate them. It’s time to make a shorter working week a reality for people across the UK.