The feminist case for a shorter working week

Our working week is a relic of another time when women were expected to stay in the home. We have to change that.

In 1963 the American author Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. This game-changing book helped to launch the “second wave” of feminism that raged through the next two decades. It showed how women were increasingly well educated but trapped at home being housewives: Friedan called it “the problem that has no name”.

Fifty years on, the problem is only marginally different. It is less about enforced joblessness and housework; more about the pressures of paid work and caring. Nowadays women are expected to go out to work and bring home a wage, but they must do so in ways that interfere as little as possible with, first, caring for children and, later, caring for ailing parents – and often both at once. As a result, many women do so-called “part-time” jobs, which attract lower wages and status because they are not seen as proper (that is, “full-time”) employment. The formal economy could not survive for a moment without the work women do at home. Yet this work is un-valued and largely unnoticed: it is today’s “problem that has no name”. 

Last week’s British Social Attitudes Survey confirmed what many of us suspected - our attitudes to gender roles are changing, but in reality women still bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities. And this has a huge influence over how men and women use and value time, how much power they have, and relations between them. 

Women fought long and hard for the right to enter paid employment on equal terms with men. But this has never been matched with any equivalent movement of men into unpaid caring. So inequalities between women and men remain deeply entrenched.  It is an absurd situation that is ethically indefensible and politically unsustainable. Moreover, it is avoidable. 

In our new book Time on Our Side, we examine the case for a shorter working week – a slow but steady move towards an average of 30 hours, for women and for men. Suppose, as a thought experiment, that it became “normal” to do paid work for the equivalent of four days or 30 hours a week. Every individual – male and female – who now works for five days or around 40 hours would work 30 hours instead. This opens up a range of opportunities for doing things differently. Each man and women would have 50 per cent more time to spend outside the workplace. For a family with two adults who currently work five days a week, this could reduce the number of hours required for paid care by as much as 2 days a week, reducing the care bill by up to 40 per cent.  For households where one adult, usually the female, works short hours while the other works long hours, a new 30-hour “standard” could enable the woman to take on more paid employment, opening up opportunities outside the home and potentially narrowing the pay gap between herself and her partner. And it would give the man more time to spend with his family. 

In effect, with a 30-hour norm, “part-time” would become the new “full-time”. The pressures on women of combining paid work and caring would ease substantially. “Part-timers” would no longer be marginalised once this became the “standard” pattern of paid employment for men as well as women. The corrosive inequalities of income and power between women and men would begin to ebb and change. Men could build their capabilities as parents and carers. Children would get more time with their fathers as well as their mothers and develop less polarised views about male and female identities. 

But moving to a shorter working week will bring a wider range of benefits. In Time on Our Side, the authors show how a slow but steady move towards a shorter paid working week would help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life. 

Of course, the call for a shorter working week throws the issue of pay into sharp relief. For many, working shorter hours would mean abject poverty. But the answer to the problem of low pay is not to force people to work long hours just to get by.  It must be tackled on its own ground. This calls for a broad strategy on low pay that goes well beyond defending the National Minimum Wage, to include education, training and pressures on employers to improve pay and conditions. On average, women still earn less than men, so tackling low pay is a gender issue too.

The personal is not just political, it is economic. Who does the dishes or changes the nappies is more than a social choice it’s the effect of an economy that runs on gender divides. Our working week is a relic of another time when women were expected to stay in the home. The next wave of feminism must challenge that.

Anna Coote is Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation

The working week is a hangover from a time when women were expected to stay at home. Photo: Getty
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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.