WHAT happens to the idea of work-life balance, when it's too little work and not too much that's the problem? After a week in which unemployment has hit 2.68 million with scary talk of three million by spring, the question is getting pressing. It's all too easy to look at those figures and shiver: to see the desire for more time as suddenly self-indulgent, faintly old hat.
Which is why an interview given by the Virgin tycoon Richard Branson a few days ago is so interesting. He argued that one answer to unemployment was making it 'less expensive to allow job-sharing or flexitime', sharing what work there is around. Or in other words: some parents' desire for more time is part of the solution, not the problem.
It's not a new idea: one of the reasons job-sharing is relatively widespread in the Netherlands is that it was actively promoted in the wake of the 1980s recession, to help keep unemployment down. And going even further back, the Great Depression in the Thirties arguably helped shift us finally from a six day working week (common at the turn of the century) to the five day week we now regard as 'traditional'.
I don't really buy the argument made recently by think-tank the New Economic Foundation for a universal 21-hour working week: not everybody wants to shorten their hours, and thousands of people couldn't afford to even if they did. But promoting job-sharing for those who want it (Branson reckoned about 5,000 of Virgin's 60,000 staff might) does look like a neat way of killing two birds with one stone.
Going part-time after having children works out fine for some, but not every job can physically be done in three days a week -which is how too many parents end up parked in jobs which are too junior for them, but offer the right hours. Job-sharing, on the other hand, can be a way of reducing one's hours while hanging onto seniority (and salary). And in the current crisis, its potential to create new openings (either as the 'other half' of a share, or in full-time roles created when two existing staffers start sharing a job), is suddenly not to be sniffed at.
Branson didn't explain in that interview how job-sharing might be made more appealing, but one obvious answer is some kind of temporary national insurance relief. (The idea of a national insurance 'holiday' for employers willing to hire new people during the slump is already being kicked around Westminster). The more cheapskate option could be an advisory service for small firms struggling to cope with the technicalities of splitting pay, perks and responsibilities between two people. Either way, it's not just work-life balance but the balance between the working and the workless that now matters.