Camilla is 31. She has two children under five. She currently works five hours a week but she would prefer to work 16 hours. Like her, Rachel also has two children under five. She’s a stay at home mum but she would prefer to work full time. But for both Camilla and Rachel, childcare is too expensive for them to work as many hours as they would like.
According to Careers and Carers, a new report from the Resolution Foundation, Camilla and Rachel are not alone. From a survey of nearly 2000 mums, one in five working mums said that they wanted to work more, on average an extra 10 hours a week. Among stay at home mums, four out of ten would prefer to work, on average 23 hours a week. Despite significant investment in childcare over the last decade, two thirds of mums still find the high cost of childcare to be a barrier to work. For those who are in work, a lack of employer flexibility can also get in the way.
The upshot of these barriers is that maternal employment rates in the UK are average rather than good. We fall behind the top performers in the OECD – Slovenia, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland. These countries manage to support eight out of ten mothers to work and have more mothers who work full-time. We fall short of seven out of ten overall and for some groups, further behind. The UK does least well for mums with three or more children, for mums of three to five year olds and for single mums. We are third from the bottom of the OECD league table when it comes to employment among single mums.
Being average internationally on maternal employment is not a good place to be. First and foremost, it’s important that mothers are able to make choices about how they balance work and family life. Some do want to stay at home, especially when their children are young. But not everyone who is at home would choose to be. A significant proportion cannot afford to work or do not have the flexibility to make the work-life juggle possible. Second, having two earners in work rather than one offers lower income families greater protection against poverty. Finally, with wages recovering slowly and continuing to lag behind inflation, having two working parents will help lift living standards and ease the squeeze on family finances for all families.
The current government has rightly recognised the importance of childcare and found nearly £1 billion extra to invest but it is choosing to invest it poorly. Our survey supports previous ones which highlight that lower earning mums are more likely to want to work more than higher earning ones. They need the money more. But the government is targeting three quarters of its new money at better off families, including those earning up to £300,000. This is unlikely to yield much payback to government. It will simply subsidise childcare costs that parents currently pay without encouraging more mums to work. The payback would be greater if more of that money was targeted at lower paid parents who face the biggest barriers to work.