The study, published today in Work, Employment and Society is the first comprehensive overview of how UK couples are currently dividing their total work responsibilities. Researchers analyzed data from over 8,500 different-sex couples interviewed in 2010-2011 as part of the UK Household Longitudinal Study and created 8 groups of couples based on how they divided their time between paid employment, caring duties, and domestic labor. Couples were aged between 16 and 65.
The researchers looked at what type of work couples did (unpaid housework, paid employment, unpaid childcare, and unpaid adult care). They then further analyzed the data according to differences between them in their levels of education and whether they agreed in their attitudes around ‘gender roles’ (were they traditional, egalitarian, neither, or was one partner more egalitarian than the other.). The study found that very few of the couples shared housework equally. Researchers identified two small groups out of the eight groups where the men’s contribution to housework was equal or more than their partners. In one of these groups, making up 6% of the total cohort, women were the main earners and more likely to be highly-educated than their partners.
In the other group, just 1% of the total cohort, the man remained at home and did more than 20 hours’ domestic labor. However, even in this group, around two-thirds of the women also did some domestic work. These stay-at-home men were quite likely to be caring for an adult – 40% of them provided more than 20 hours’ care per week. Overall, almost half (49%) of couples were dual-earners with both members of the couple tending to be employed full-time, but these couples were less likely than traditional couples to have children at home.
The second biggest group (at 28%) had a highly traditional division of work. Men were predominately employed full-time, while over half of the women were not in paid work, and the remaining were employed part-time. Women in these couples performed large amounts of housework, with over half spending more than 20 hours per week on housework, with 63% of the men contributing fewer than five hours of housework per week. The third most common group (at 13%) was somewhat older, generally, in their fifties and early sixties, very few of them were employed with little to no caregiving responsibilities. Women in these couples did relatively high levels of housework, suggesting that these couples may have previously followed a traditional gender division of work. Combined with the age profile and lack of dependent children at home suggests that this group of couples had children previously and are in the ‘empty nester’ life stage.
In addition, where men had higher educational qualifications than their partners, couples were more likely to fall into the traditional working patterns, and where men had lower educational qualifications than their partners, domestic work was shared more equally. “When it comes to housework and caring, we see gender equality remains rare and gender norms remain strong. Changing attitudes around gender norms is one avenue for encouraging change in this area,” concluded Professor McMunn, “Our study suggests that even couples who share egalitarian ideas about the roles of men and women may not be able to counter potential obstacles to equality in the UK. Evidence from Nordic countries shows that well-paid paternity leave provision and affordable childcare are also key.”
Brexit, with prolonged trade negotiations and predicted economic decline – will affect families in the coming decades. “Economic insecurity is associated with an increased preference for cohabitation as opposed to marriage,” says Berrington. “Furthermore, economic hardship is related to increased risks of family breakdown.” Berrington points out that families have become more transnational, “especially since women have made up an increasingly large proportion of migrants. In previous decades, migrants to the UK from South Asia often migrated for family formation or reunification. Today, migration to the UK is more often for purposes of education and work. So the future link between international migration and family formation is unclear.” This is particularly so as policies around migration are tightened up.
Women will continue to make strides in the workforce, but this will put pressure on childcare, which still disproportionally falls to mothers. In the UK, we don’t have the “extensive childcare to match what happens in Germany and northern Europe”, says Lewis. “We don’t think carefully about protecting the next generation.”
Stay-at-home dads are still a minority, but Lewis says he remains surprised by the still-small number of fathers who are the resident parent after family breakdown, even if they have been the main carer before that. Will that change by 2050? Not if the past few decades are anything to go by. “It hasn’t changed much since the early 70s. We think that 40 or 50 years ago was a time when the children always went to the mother, but a government report in 1974 documented that 10% of children lived with their dads, and it’s not much more than 10% now.”
We are an aging population. By 2035, there will be 44% more people over the age of 65 than there were in 2017. Age UK estimates “around 650,000 extra care jobs will be needed”. In October, the government announced a £34m investment program to try to teach robot carers to be more empathetic to their humans, making it more likely that by 2050, robots will – as has long been predicted – be one answer to the growing social care crisis. Will they also provide childcare? This has long been more controversial than elder care, but nurseries in Japan have already trialed the use of robots to help out.
The birth of social media has provided a new view of what “perfect” parenting is supposed to look like. We are encouraged to compare ourselves with others, and we are also, says Thomas Curran, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, becoming more perfectionist. “Parenting has changed in recent years. Parents are more expectant and are becoming more critical. That is because they are passing down pressures that they feel from society. Things have become tough, the job market has become more precarious, educational achievement has become very important for – I hate to put it in these terms – their children’s ‘future market price’. There’s a lot of pressure on parents now to ensure they raise successful children.”
This will become more acute, he believes, at least in the shorter term. By 2050, it could have reversed. “This current generation of young people, as they become parents themselves, I sense that they will do things differently. They are pushing back against societal pressures.” In terms of social media, they may not share endless photographs of their children, or do the kind of performative parenting that now often plays out online. “I think they will be much better at educating and building awareness in their children about [how manufactured] social media is.”
Social and economic factors such as decisions about marriage, divorce, further education, work, values, and more all play a part in impacting how a typical family structure might look in 30 years. While some of these observations were made based on previous years or decades and are subject to change, it is still interesting to explore how our families might be different by 2050.
Author: Diva Maharani | Illustrator: Akbar Nugroho