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Great Britain

Family Roles: Men's Work, Women's Work

As Graham Allan and Graham Crow (2001) point out, changes in family life are not only a matter of changing family structures but also changing family roles and relationships. Changing roles are very apparent with respect to paid employment, and one of the most striking trends in Great Britain is the continuing decline of the traditional family model of male breadwinner and dependent wife and the rise of the two-earner family. This is a consequence of changes in women's employment patterns, with much of the employment growth arising from increased employment participation rates among women with children. Women now return to work more quickly after childbirth, with about half of those giving birth in 1998 back at paid work within nine to eleven months (in 1979 this was true for just one-fourth). Overall, about 70 percent of married mothers are economically active, but this varies significantly with the age of the children, 58 percent of women with a youngest child of preschool age (under five) are employed compared with 78 percent of mothers with a youngest child over ten. Part-time work (under thirty hours) is very common, with about two-fifths of mothers in part-time jobs. This does not vary much by age of children, because it is women's full-time work that increases as children get older.

By contrast, becoming a father has little impact on men's employment participation rates—about 85 to 90 percent of fathers are economically active—although fathers do tend to work longer hours than men without children (forty-seven hours per week compared with forty for men in general). But most of the married women who have entered in the labor market over the past decade have been married to employed men rather than unemployed men. Two-earner families increased from about 50 percent of all couples with children in 1985 to about 62 percent in 1995. Two-earner couples are therefore increasingly the norm, particularly among families with school-age children. The most common pattern is for the man to be in full-time work and the women to be in part-time work. If both parents work full-time, the couple is more likely to share domestic work, but if the woman works part-time, she also does the bulk of the domestic work. The higher-paid couples often buy in domestic labor and childcare, and two-earner couples are the family type most likely to use formal childcare. Many, however, also work hours that allow them to shift parent, with fathers providing childcare while mothers are out working, and vice versa. Over one-fourth of twoearner families have at least one parent who regularly works in the evening or at night. The provision of childcare services is relatively low in Great Britain compared with many European countries, and the costs are high, so if both parents are employed, families often have to set up quite complex arrangements using combinations of different sorts of childcare.

For about one in ten couples with children, neither parent is employed, and these families, many suffering from ill-health and experiencing long-term unemployment, form a sharp contrast with the relatively well-off two-earner couples. Lone parents form another sort of contrast. The employment trends for lone mothers have followed a rather different trend from those of married mothers, with no significant growth in employment rates. About half (51%) of lone mothers are employed, and young, single mothers without educational qualifications are the least likely to be employed, especially if they have young children. Many lone mothers face considerable barriers to paid work, including lack of work experience and qualifications, health problems for themselves or their children, lack of affordable and good-quality childcare, and lack of suitable jobs in the areas where they live. Thus, many lone mothers rely upon government support through social security benefits, and around seven in ten lone parents are receiving Income Support (the means-tested safety net benefit of Great Britain system). Even among those who are employed, low wages mean that there is a heavy reliance upon state financial support, and six in ten employed lone parents are receiving financial support to top up their wages.

One consequence of these family and employment changes has been a polarization between work-rich and work poor households, between those with two earners and those with none. Great Britain has also experienced a large and rapid rise in income inequality and poverty since the 1970s, and this has particularly affected families with children. Government figures show that, between 1979 and 1995-96, average incomes for households with children rose by 35 percent compared with 43 percent for those without children (excluding pensioners). There has been a significant growth in child poverty in Great Britain, with 4.4 million children—one-third of all children—estimated to be living in poor households in the late 1990s (poverty being here defined as households with less than half of the average household income, taking family size into account).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsGreat Britain - The Nature Of Family Change In Great Britain, Family Roles: Men's Work, Women's Work