On Monday the Women and Equalities Commission launched a new inquiry into Fathers and the Workplace. This coincided with research warning of the ‘fatherhood penalty’ for men who wanted to spend more time caring for their children.

The headlines suggested that Dads who wanted to give up on the tyranny of long hours and full time work for the good of their children were being penalised and even that the gains in work life balance and flexibility in the work place had been won by women – though it acknowledged the ‘motherhood penalty’. This may be true but look beyond the headlines and at wider social and demographic changes and there is a big trend emerging – and one that I’d argue is working to the detriment of men and women – and not only working parents.

The big change over the last 30 years has been the rise of women in the workplace and an increase in how much they are working. At the end of last year, 79.1% of men and 69.8% of women were in work (ONS, UK Labour Market December 2016). Since the early 1970s, there has been a decline in the percentage of men working full time (now 89%) and a rise from 53% to 62% (between 1971 and 2016) of women employed full-time.

In short, men are working less and women more but overall, more of us are working.

Naturally this has an impact on family life. Analysis of the Labour Force Survey in 2013 by Connolly et al showed how the ‘traditional’ family (a full time male breadwinner and a stay at home female) was a relic of the 1950s. As we all have probably witnessed, what’s most common nowadays for families with two adults and children is the dual earning couple. In 2014, in more than 68 per cent of couple families with dependent children, both parents were working (ONS, Families in the labour market, 2014).  In two parent families, the percentage of both parents working full time increased from 26 per cent in 2001 to nearly a third (31%) in 2013 (Modern Fatherhood, Parental Working in Europe, 2016).

With the rise in the proportion of both parents working full time there’s been a decline in the ‘1.5’ working household (one full timer and a part timer; usually a full time male and a part time female who took care of most of the domestic side of things).  In dual working couples, the trend is that Dads’ working hours have declined and they are now less likely to be at work when their children are at home (evenings and weekends). But against this, working mother’s hours have increased so for families it’s a swings and roundabouts situation and many might argue that, overall, it’s worse.

Working life and family life is changing.

More women with children are working full time and there are more families where both parents work full time. Dad’s involvement with their children’s care has grown and is growing. In the mid-1970s this was reported as less than 15 minutes a day. By 2005 fathers said they did a third of parental childcare.

Yes, parents need flexibility in the workplace without ‘penalties’ to be able to balance their family-work demands. But flexibility shouldn’t only focus on those with dependent children. As the population of older people grows and ages, the chance of any of us having a dependent parent, partner or relative who will need care increases. What we need to do is broaden our thinking beyond dependent children to enable us to address the mounting social care shortage.

Perhaps it’s time to stop talking about maternal and paternal leave, the focus on children and childcare, the ability to balance working hours with school hours and holidays and broaden it to ‘care responsibilities’. If it’s presented as an issue that affects us all we might then have a chance of reducing the work penalty that flexibility in the workplace attracts.