Too much hard work

Observations on social trends

"Running to stand still" is how one tired working mother described her life in a recent focus group. These days, 70 per cent of families have two parents who work - back in the Fifties, 70 per cent had one full-time parent at home.

The pressures of juggling work and home are growing, but that's not the only change. Men's lives are different, too - not so much in the way they work, but in the way they feel about work and its impact on their lives. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey highlights men's growing concern about work interfering with home: 82 per cent of men now say they would like more time for their family - up 10 per cent since 1997.

More interesting still is that men are 10 per cent more likely to feel that work interferes with their family life than are women who work full-time, and almost 20 per cent more likely than women who work part-time. Yet there is no evidence that men are working longer hours. In fact, the reverse is true - 22 per cent of men worked more than 50 hours a week in 1997: now the figure is 16 per cent.

Does this mean, as some social scientists suggest, that expectations have changed with a long-term shift towards post-materialist values? A recent Age Concern Citizens' Forum which explored public opinion on the challenges facing the family suggests not. While both sexes expressed a desire to spend more time with family, the biggest vote (71 per cent) was for working to fund a more costly lifestyle.

Focus groups bear this out. Families want to spend leisure together, but they also expect to buy nice homes (and furnish them well), own cars, take holidays abroad, and enjoy expensive leisure activities such as eating out.

These expectations, once seen as luxuries, but now as necessities, have driven the increase in work by women. And although men are working slightly less, this decline has been more than compensated for by women working many more hours. Britain is more committed to paid work than ever before.

That is not to say that pay is the only reason to work. Focus groups support the theory that the non-material benefits of work matter - for example, finding work interesting and meeting people through it - but they also tell us that the material benefits are the most important. The BSA survey bears this out: there has been a small decline in the value placed on material benefits of work since first measured in 1989, but there has been no increase in the value placed on non-material rewards, which score 30 per cent lower.

In fact, the BSA survey offers evidence that work may be less enjoyable now than it was because stress levels are higher - up significantly from 1989 for all workers, with the number who claim they "hardly ever or never" feel stress at work having halved. Even for part-time working women, the number who never feel stress has declined from 35 per cent to 26 per cent.

The survey also found that professional and managerial employees were more likely to experience stress than other categories. These groups are also the ones working the longest hours (59 per cent working 40 or more hours a week, compared to 26 per cent in other social classes) and more likely to be in households where both partners work (81 per cent, compared to 51 per cent).

So, there are strong economic reasons to work, and more women are working - and working longer hours. Men feel torn between work and family as never before, and everyone, especially managers, feels more stressed.

The Equal Opportunities Commission, as part of its report Working Outside the Box, published on 23 January, looked at work flexibility. What kind of flexibility did people prefer? Top of the list was flexitime, followed by home working. Part time was less popular than either, chiming with Work Foundation research showing that while parents of children under six prefer part-time working, those with older children prefer full-time flexitime.

Working Outside the Box makes a bigger point: work must change to meet our changing needs. Half the population want flexible working. Without it, Britain suffers a huge "skills drain", with some 6.5 million people either leaving the workforce or working beneath their skill level. This affects men as much as women, and non-parents as much as parents. Pioneering employers are moving on from rigid models of work. The rest are wasting Britain's skills resources.

Deborah Mattinson is joint chief executive of Opinion Leader Research and an EOC commissioner

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change