Family Matters

27th Jun, 2014

A recent article in the Guardian (discussing research to be presented at the ESRC research methods festival next month) reminded us of a trend we have been monitoring and articulating for a number of years (well, decades in fact): that men are spending more time on childcare. 

At the same time analysis by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) highlighted another of our longstanding tenets – the strength and resilience of the family in the modern world. Rather than the crisis that so many uninformed politicians, lobbyists and the media claim the family is robust (albeit somewhat changed) and remains the bedrock of modern society.

What shouldn’t be confused is changing household structures and the continuing importance of the institution. In part the changing and varied structures are a reflection of adaptation to wider changes:

“There is no such thing as a typical family in 21st century Britain. They are complex and dynamic and have evolved and adapted to social changes.” (ISER).

But note, perhaps the key issue is that these changes are affecting different groups:

“It appears that professionals, working class natives and immigrants maybe going in different directions” (ISER).

It is important that government and business alike to recognise and adapt to these trends:

  • Do not assume there is some typical family structure either when developing social policy or when devising marketing strategies
  • Families remain the single most important source of information and advice
  • As such, addressing the family unit (in all its forms) is a potentially lucrative one for companies either in terms of recommendations or family ‘offers’

One sour note to the differences between groups is that inequality is likely to increase. Parents with a better educational background spend not only more time with their children but also more on helping with homework. This has a direct impact on the child’s own achievements. In a personal conversation with Professor Jonathan Gershuny (one of the world’s leading experts on time-use) he highlighted “that British middle-class parents are ‘working’ the education system ‘to ensure high levels of educational attainment for their children’. And it looks like the effect is getting more pronounced over time.” (As quoted in the book Complicated Lives.)

So, I guess, this is yet another area where inequality and polarisation are key threats to societal cohesion. This remains the key challenge for the public and private sector alike.