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Issue 36, March 1999

Women on the verge of a new millenium

Having None Of It
By Suzanne Franks, Granta, 1999, 12-99.
Reviewed by Eleanor Donne

THE TWENTY-FIRST century was supposed to be the age of leisure wasn't it? In the 1970s many confidently predicted that technological advances and the resulting increase in production would enable all of us to be working less and playing more by the millennium.

Suzanne Franks asks in Having none of it women, men and the future of work, 'why do the gurus always get it wrong'? She provides a well researched, readable challenge to the 'having it all' myth by analysing the changed working lives of men and, in particular, women.

Franks argues that the demands of a de-regulated, casualised, low-wage economy have, since the 1980s, created an uneven distribution of work. Unemployment rose sharply, yet as the number in full-time work dropped, the hours they work have increased. In Britain the average working week for those counted as working full time is now 45 hours the highest in Europe. A quarter of fathers of children under 11 work more than fifty hours a week. Far from being a release from long hours, technology has, Franks says, reinforced the pressures of work. Pagers, lap tops and mobile phones mean that you are never not at work, even when you are at home.

Franks is particularly good at exposing the 'genderquake'. She points out that behind all the talk of women's natural qualities making them ideally suited to the 'new working order' (networking, part-time work, balancing roles etc) for the majority of women work has not brought liberation but 'a tedious reality far removed from the glossy magazine image of the working woman'. Whilst more women than ever are moving into the workforce, they are not 'getting to the top'. The culture of long hours, of having to be constantly available to your employer the 'Japanese model' of the company 'slave' - requires men to have what Franks calls 'invisible families'. They are assumed to have a wife to run the home and care for the children, but who is to be the female employee's 'wife'? The demands of the free-market, where the flexibility is all on the part of the worker not the employer, make it incompatible with the needs of parents. (For parents read mothers, for reasons which are explored in other parts of the book). Franks semi-ironically describes three categories of worker: men, women and mothers. It seems that young professional childless women are embracing the opportunity to succeed at work (they work seven hours a week longer than young male professionals). But childbirth is a 'key turning point in women's employment'.

  Having None Of It describes how women's lives and expectations in relation to paid work have changed dramatically over the last twenty years. But in the home it is business as usual. There has only been 'half a revolution', as Franks puts it. The gurus got this one wrong as well when they predicted in the 1970s that as women moved into the workforce men would 'take up the slack' in the house. According to the mass of research that Franks draws on, this simply has not happened. All surveys conclude that the vast majority of women continue to do more cooking, washing, shopping, cleaning and childcare than their partner. This is the case even when they are both working full time, or when their partner is unemployed. As Franks (politely) puts it, this has resulted in a 'leisure deficit' between men and women. The latest government figures show that women spend six-and-a-half hours more than men per week on paid and domestic work combined. Parenthood generally seems to result in a reversion to traditional roles, even where young women fully expected that jobs in the house would continue to be shared equally once the children came along.

Franks concludes that whereas women have expanded their traditional role of mother and homemaker, men have not found an identity beyond work. She describes how devastating this has been to many men in a society where permanent unemployment is endemic and job security is a thing of the past. She adds her voice to the concern at the lack of a valued place in society for young men. Having a child can give young women status even if accompanied by poverty, so that 'non-working men are feckless and trouble. Non-working women are mothers'.

  The problem of male unemployment and loss of status is one which preoccupys academics, economists and politicians alike. A minority are putting forward the idea of a return to a 'family wage' (where a male breadwinner supports his wife financially and she is a full time carer). In other words, women should go back home and leave paid work to men. However, as Franks points out, this 'ideal' family set-up has only ever been possible during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. For a skilled worker that was probably the first and only time that one wage was enough to live on comfortably. And even if a return to the 'ideal family' was politically possible to achieve (and even its advocates doubt this), economically it is at odds with the need for capitalism to undermine wages and conditions at work.

But whilst women would resist any attempt to turn the clock back to the 'good old days', there is more than enough evidence in the book to show that they have no reason to be happy with how things are.

So, what is to be done? Franks takes a suitably sceptical look at New Labour's 'family friendly' policies. Just as the Tories refused to accept the link between crime and poverty, Franks argues that New Labour's 'blind spot' is the effect of the labour market on family cohesion. She is critical of the New Deal and what she terms as the government's 'work ethic' - the best route out of poverty is work. She looks to Sweden and other Northern European countries that have not (yet) completed their Thatcher revolution for examples of long-term and flexible paid parental leave, good quality childcare, and a shorter working week.

Throughout the book Franks returns to the theme of 'time versus money'. Working parents (mothers in particular) are loaded with guilt because they haven't enough time for their kids. Yet we are pressured towards a consumer lifestyle which the three million children living below the poverty line cannot hope to participate in.

Franks argues for a change in values so that men and women can take proper parental leave, career breaks, and work part-time without losing career prospects or being ghettoised into low-paid 'twilight shift' jobs. However, in spite of being forced by EU rules to introduce the working time directive and three months parental leave (unpaid of course), Blair's government will not implement measures that really help parents, when these might be 'bad for business' or worse, cost money.

Again and again, Franks returns to the conflict between the interests of women, men and children and the demands of the capitalist economy (although she does not often use the word capitalist). What she leaves unsaid, but what all the evidence in the book confirms, is that women's double oppression at work and at home is completely bound up with capitalism. The only way to achieve true equality - to complete the 'half a revolution' - is to replace a system which puts profit above all, with one that we control and run to benefit all members of society, parents included.

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