Love, care, intimacy, children and Tony Blair

September 27, 2002

Research shows relationships and work patterns have changed drastically and policies will need to reflect this. Fiona Williams reports.

What matters to people in their relationships, how is that likely to change in the future and what are the repercussions for government policy? These are huge issues that require years of research.

It is too early to say what the precise implications for policy might be from our research into parenting and partnership, but it is possible to give an overview of the issues that will have to be considered.

Policies will need to recognise the diversity of ways in which people negotiate love, care and intimacy. These activities are not necessarily co-terminous with heterosexual married family life, even though heterosexual partners may well get married at some time in their lives. They will have, for example, to recognise that people marry, cohabit, separate, divorce, remarry, become step-parents, have step-siblings, parent children within same-sex relationships, are single parents, have homes in two parents' houses, have long-term partnerships with people from whom they choose to live apart, choose a singleton life, opt to be childless. Some of these permutations are not new (death saw to the early end of marriage in the past and wars rendered some women unmarried and childless), but the extent to which people are attempting to negotiate different forms of living and caring relationships as partners and parents seems to be changing.

These changes are sometimes seen as undermining wider social stability or the commitment shown by parents and partners, but research shows this does not seem to be the case. Many people work hard at their relationships and place a premium on their quality. There is a surprising closeness, for example, between teenagers and their parents, surprising given the idea of teenagers as moody, bolshie and uncommunicative. Ex-partners often form an important part in individuals' networks of support. In some ways, then, there are fewer "fixed" ideas about what relationships should look like, although the idea that children's needs come first seems to be commonplace.

There are also more children of mixed ethnic heritage, although there are also areas in which different ethnic groups do not form inter-ethnic partnerships. People who are second or third-generation migrants often also maintain important commitments across continents.

Recognising and respecting the choices people have made and the commitments they have is vital for policies and services. For example, it affects visiting practices in hospitals, teachers' assumptions about family members, as well as the definition of "dependant" or "spouse" in state and occupational benefits. At a more specific level, one of the most important developments is around policies for work-life balance. More women have entered the labour market, and indeed expect and are expected to do so. It is often assumed that we are entering a more individualised society where men and women are self-reliant wage-earners and that we have moved from a male breadwinner system to a dual-worker system. In some places, among well-paid professionals or couples, this may be the case, but for most women with children, juggling (often low-paid and insecure) work and childcare is a continuing struggle. In addition, their move into the labour market has not been accompanied by a significant equalising of their responsibilities in the home.

Britain's male workers have the longest working hours in Europe. But, although new Labour has gone further than any previous government in providing childcare places and childcare tax credits, work is still modelled on the male autonomous worker's availability, and childcare provision is often inadequate or inflexible, not fitting in with work hours or too expensive. Many parents also prefer to trust a close friend or family member to care for their children while they work, and the system does not allow payments to be made to them.

Time has become a key commodity in people's lives. For many women workers, negotiating with employers over time is more important than negotiating over wages. We will need more imaginative ways of providing flexible working time and support for parents - job-sharing, annualised hours rather than weekly hours, possibilities to bank additional time worked to take as paid leave, paid parental leave and carers' leave, nurseries and breakfast and holiday clubs at work, reduced hours (as in France), unpaid sabbatical leave.

One of the effects of women working, and increased longevity, is a much greater demand for household services - childcare, elder care, domestic cleaning, home maintenance and food services - and it is likely this demand will continue. But the working conditions and pay of such work is low. For those working outside state and voluntary sectors, there is little social protection. Much of the work is undocumented, and most care work and domestic cleaning is done by women. Career prospects are poor because there is no formal route into this work, no career progression and the expertise and communication skills required get little recognition.

At the same time, the supply of workers going into this sort of work is drying up. The area needs a radical rethink. Strategies would involve establishing and formalising career paths in the household service sector, developing training that is person-oriented rather than task-oriented and developing accreditation frameworks that recognise experience acquired on the job.

From the point of view of users of services, there has also been a growing demand for services to be responsive, flexible, of good quality and accessible. But the disabled people's movement in particular has argued that training and professionalisation tend to produce people with a pathological model of disability, so a deep suspicion is attached to it. This means we have to rethink the nature of training for workers in health and social care so that user-groups have much greater involvement in monitoring courses and trainees. In addition, the development of quality services requires users and providers to liaise about the way benefits and services should be prioritised and delivered. And providing quality services also depends on ensuring decent working conditions.

At a much more general level, one difficulty is that the government's emphasis on citizenship seems to rely on people's involvement in paid work. The work ethic underpins most social policies and much more attention has been paid to getting people into work than to policies to enable caring to happen when they work.

At the political level, we need to develop a care ethic to balance the work ethic. Not only would this reflect people's own priorities and the links between work and home life, it could be the basis for a national care strategy that could join up policies for care that are fragmented between family policy, health policies and social care, education, income support, environment and so on. Central to this would be developing guidelines for informal social and professional care practice.

Fiona Williams is director of Cares, Values and the Future of Welfare, an ESRC research group based at the department of sociology and social policy at Leeds University.

Social trends statistics from the National Office for Statistics, which issues the first results from the 2001 census on Monday:

  • Forty per cent of babies are now born outside wedlock, compared with 10 per cent 20 years ago
  • Seven million people live on their own - one-third of all households - compared with just 2 million in 1961
  • A fifth of Britons will be aged 65 or over by 2025
  • Twenty per cent of families were run by lone parents in 2001, compared with 12 per cent in 1981


What is the future of the family likely to look like? Two related interdisciplinary research projects, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, are looking at both ends of the spectrum. Cava - Care, Values and the Future of Welfare - is focusing on partnership and parenthood, while Sage, Simulating Policy for an Ageing Society, is looking at the impact an ageing population will have on policy.

Cava, based in the University of Leeds' department of sociology and social policy, has £1.3 million from the ESRC and is described as an update on the research undertaken in the 1940s to set up Britain's welfare state. This assumed certain stable features of life, such as marriage, employment and gender roles. The Cava research team is looking at how these have changed, how they differ according to ethnicity, age, class and other factors, how this has affected social policy and what the international picture is. The research, which began in October 1999, is expected to be completed by October 2004, with the last year devoted to testing and debating a proposed new framework of "family values" through a series of citizen's dialogues and feedback forums with policy-makers, politicians and organisations.

Sage, based at the London School of Economics, is examining questions such as: how will changes in family structure affect the availability of informal care? And will our ageing society become more polarised? The research includes simulating how people's lives will change, in terms of health, care needs, economic circumstances and so forth as they grow into old age between now and 2020 and what this might mean for social policy. One area they are looking at is the "boomerang children" who move back in with elderly parents due to changing work circumstances.


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