How should parents divide their work and caring responsibilities when children are young?
The questions we report above about how much mothers should work when their children are pre-school or school-age focus on the mother's employment alone, without regard to the working patterns of the father. It may be that responses are based on an (unstated) assumption that the father would be working full-time. If so, people's views might be somewhat different if this was not necessarily the case. To explore this issue, British Social Attitudes included a new question in 2012 tapping public perceptions of 'ideal' divisions of parental responsibility between employment and childcare. Specifically, the question asked:
Consider a family with a child under school age. What, in your opinion, is the best way for them to organise their family and work life?
And, in your opinion, which of these options would be the least desirable?
Respondents were presented with a range of options, set out in Table 5.3. It is striking that, in 2012, only one in ten (nine per cent) people choose options that did not involve the mother being ascribed the sole or main 'carer' role. The most popular approach, selected by almost four in ten people, is for the mother to work part-time and the father to work full-time. Three in ten think the mother should stay at home while the father works full-time. There is minimal support for a role reversal: less than one per cent think that the father should stay at home or work part-time while the mother works full-time. Likewise, very few people (four per cent) think that it is best for both parents to work full-time: there is clear opposition to this, with almost half (47 per cent) viewing this as the least desirable way of organising things. There is also minimal support for splitting the breadwinner and carer roles equally (with both parents working part-time). So, these data suggest that the public retains a view that there should be a gender divide in terms of caring responsibilities: the shift has been in accepting the idea that a mother works part-time, rather than not at all.
The views of men and women on this issue are very similar: it is not the case that men express substantially greater support for options involving a traditional division of labour roles, or indeed that they would advocate a greater care-giving role for fathers. Moreover, the views of parents reflect those of the population as a whole, while the views of mothers and fathers of children aged under 18 are not significantly different.
We have shown earlier that older people tend to be more supportive than younger people of traditional gender roles. We might therefore expect them to be more likely to advocate a traditional arrangement here, where the mother stays at home while the father works full-time. Table 5.4 shows this is the case. People aged 66 and over - who were mostly born during or before World War Two - show the strongest support for the 'male breadwinner' - with almost half (48 per cent) recommending the mother stays at home and the father works full time. This generation is also the least likely to select the "can't choose" option. When this generation had dependent-aged children, they would have taken traditional gender roles for granted (although economic necessity forced some women to work part-time); whereas for subsequent generations the male breadwinner family is only one option among several different ways that families with young children can choose to organise the divide of work and care.
The youngest age group (aged 25 or less) are by far the most likely to favour both the mother and father working part-time (although, still, just 14 per cent of young adults favour this option); we should treat this figure with caution due to the small number of respondents in this age group. Both parents working part-time may make possible a more egalitarian approach to parenting. However, this option would only be realistic in Britain if wider opportunities for part-time work become available across different job sectors. Moreover, behaviour is more constrained than attitudes, and whether parents would actually risk opting for part-time over full-time work in times of tough economic conditions is not something our data can answer.
Given the changes in attitudes to gender roles and labour force participation reported above, we might expect domestic labour to have also shifted away from the traditional gender division. It is to this question that we turn next.
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- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- In 2002 and later years, answer categories were framed with reference to the respondent - "always me", "usually me", "about equal", "usually spouse/partner" and "always spouse/partner". In 1994 and earlier years, response categories were framed with reference to the gender of the individual performing the specific task - "always the woman", "usually the woman", "equal or both", "usually the man" or "always the man". The data presented in Table 5.6 was re-classified for the later years, to reflect the format in which the question was asked in earlier years.
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