MORE than three-quarters of mothers with dependent children are now in work, according to figures released this week. This means that there are, today, fewer than two million women under 65 who keep the home fires burning in a near-70million population, women who have given up or forgone work to look after their children, grandchildren or elderly relatives, and families where the father, if there is one, is the sole breadwinner.
It reflects the modern revolution of mothers into the workplace (crossing a 75 per cent threshold for the first time) that is treated by politicians and the culture at large as an unalloyed good, but what about the costs? As Kathy Gyngell commented to the Daily Mail, having so many new mothers in full-time work is an extraordinarily harsh experiment in the nurturing of young children. Yet the cost of pushing mothers into paid work extends well beyond the immediate needs of young children and into the wider society they are growing up in.
It used to be mothers who did the lion’s share of voluntary work that kept civic society going. Now, mothers go to work. As a result, our institutions are imploding. Politics, church, youth clubs – no one of working age has time to run them.
To illustrate: last autumn, I won a prize in the local town show. (I am one of that vanishing two million.) When the organiser came round to drop the trophy off with my name engraved on it, she practically begged me to help organise the next show. I could see why: everyone on the committee was 70 at least. Everyone younger has a job and no time.
There’s a deep irony in those unpleasant social media comments about ageing political volunteers ‘stealing the future’ of the young by treacherously having the time and inclination to get involved in political campaigning. The reality is that volunteer politics looks superannuated because no one of working age can join political campaigns unpaid. Even if they wanted to, the growing dominance of double-income families has driven up the cost of living to the point where mothers have to work, even if they’d prefer not to. And so political volunteering is a luxury for the wealthy and the retired.
Everything intangible, in fact, is a luxury for the wealthy and retired. Only they have time to spend creating those social institutions that mediate between the individual and the total state and thus make ordinary life worth living. Once upon a time, their numbers were bolstered by millions of stay-at-home mothers. But now, with so few of us left, is it any wonder our civic society is crumbling from the ground up?
I pondered the other day, vacuuming my toddler’s room, whether I was wasting my Oxbridge First reading Spot the Dog, cleaning the house and doing volunteer work. I don’t think I am. If we want a society composed of anything but alienated individuals and an all-encompassing state, we need people who could get high-powered jobs to get a bit bored, and respond to boredom not by parking the kids in 12-hour childcare so they can go back to a desk job, but to join in with all the local stuff that needs volunteers to happen at all. For a society to flourish, it takes educated people to commit to mundane life and enrich it, rather than subcontracting the dull bits and withdrawing from community involvement in favour of ‘productive’ paid work.
This pressure mothers experience, to use our time being ‘productive’ rather than helping to weave the institutions that make up civic society, is reflected on the macro scale as well. Bright, ambitious, energetic young people born in deprived areas are encouraged on all sides to leave their families and communities behind to ‘make something of themselves’ by cramming into overpriced slums on the London periphery to service the great god GDP. To do otherwise, it is implied, would be wasting their lives and talents. This is called ‘social mobility’ and when it doesn’t happen that is a bad thing.
On the micro scale, a very similar message bombards educated mothers about ‘wasting their lives’ caring for families and volunteering in the community. The result, in both cases, is families and communities abandoned by the educated and energetic. The result is that the needs of vulnerable people are increasingly outsourced to underpaid substitutes, who perform this work with a lack of enthusiasm befitting the contempt in which their role is held. And, ‘cared for’ by underpaid ‘professionals’, such families and communities lose something vital. Pushing mothers toward the workplace at any cost creates, in microcosm, an analogue to the north-south divide, in which the old, the young, the sick and the very institutions that make up a livable society become ‘the left-behind’.
For a healthy society you need educated people sufficiently tied to a place – whether by bonds of affection or duties to young children – to start organising stuff. Because for human flourishing, we need the stuff: church groups, book groups, kids’ clubs, Scouts, summer fetes. The intermediate building blocks of a culture that exist between the individual and the might of government. Without any of that stuff there’s nothing to shield us from the ever-lengthening fingers of state-mandated meddling, or indeed from our own loneliness and alienation.
It’s not axiomatic that those stepping back from ‘productive’ work have to be mothers. But if you gave families a wholly free choice – that is, if they could afford it – I reckon it’d break 70/30 at least for women taking that role. And that’s fine. The key point is that contra our prevailing culture someone has to. Forty-odd years into our experiment in making everyone ‘productive’, the number of people who have time to nurture families and civic society has been below replacement levels for some time. The older generations are dying off in serious numbers. We have only just started to count the cost of not replacing them.