Sunday, 29 January 2012

sons and daughters

"I felt they were both drowning, but I could only save one."

That line is from a rather haunting piece last weekend by the Times writer Janice Turner, describing her feelings about coping with both her increasingly frail father and a mother worn out by looking after him.
And it's stayed with me for days, I realise, because it's still so rare to see good writing lavished on a subject most editors instinctively avoid. While working parents' dramas are at least played out noisily in public, an uneasy silence lies over those of working sons and daughters, torn between work and a home they thought they had left long behind.
It isn't hard to see why we prefer not to talk or think about what happens in families towards the end. The story of parenthood is essentially uplifting, a long slow climb towards the light: being the child of fading parents is a darker and more uncertain journey, into things of which we would rather not know. But squeamishness blinds us to the growing challenge eldercare, just like childcare, poses for working life.
I say 'just like' but they're not the same, as I quickly realised when I started writing Half A Wife: while originally I thought I'd be able to deal with both challenges affecting working families in the same book, it quickly became clear that eldercare deserved a book of its own (which I very much hope someone else now writes). The demands of looking after elderly parents are perhaps less intensive day-to-day than those of looking after babies, but also less predictable, since you don't know how long illness may last or what path it will take (and you may be hundreds of miles away in a crisis): they're also arguably less well supported by state and employers. You can get tax breaks to pay for childcare that keeps you working, but not for home helps.
As Turner puts it in that piece 'what helps in old age, even more than money, is a clear-eyed but loving advocate to fight for you' - to fill in paperwork, plead for home helps or respite care (in an era of cutbacks, when help is ever more fiercely rationed), keep a beady eye on hospital or nursing home. When the time comes, most of us will want to be that advocate for the parents we love, but it all takes time and energy away from the day job. I do wonder how many of my generation will cling triumphantly to their careers through the baby years, only to crash and burn unexpectedly when it's the other end of the family that needs them.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

should childcare be tax-deductible?

HIGHLIGHTER pens! Architects' fees! Room service dinners on overnight trips! (Bear with me: this gets more interesting). Bank overdraft charges! Fax running costs! (But not, strictly not, fax machines).
Yup: these are just a few of the thrilling things that as a self-employed person I can, in the unlikely event that I haven't lost the receipts, legally offset against tax. These are the things considered so essential to my work (mailshots and free samples! car breakdown service membership!) that I'm basically allowed to have them for free. The one thing missing from the list, of course, is the one thing without which millions of people can't actually do any work: childcare.
And that's why the holy grail of tax-deductible childcare, which as the Sunday Times reported yesterday a some Conservative backbenchers are pushing David Cameron to introduce, looks initially like a no-brainer.
It would be unbelievably expensive, of course, which is why the Conservative Treasury team backed off hurriedly when they looked at it before the election. But the argument is that it could be limited initially to the self-employed, as a kind of reward for entrepreneurship - or an incentive for parents frustrated at the lack of flexible conventional jobs to create their own.
Were we starting from scratch now, it would of course seem crazy not to include childcare alongside 'renewals of small tools and items of equipment' (to quote that fascinating HMRC publication, 'Self Employment: Full Notes') under the heading of stuff without which the working world would grind to a halt, and which we therefore subsidise. But the snag is we're not starting from scratch.
We're starting from a decision to cut the amount that lower income parents who get Working Tax Credit can claim for childcare, from a maximum 80% of the nursery or childminder bill to 70 %, last spring. And yes, it sounds very boring and technical, but it probably doesn't feel that way to parents who were only just breaking even at work after shelling out for childcare and now find work quite literally doesn't pay. Should nannies for entrepreneurs be the priority, or should it be keeping these parents in work - not just for their own sanity, but for the sake of the taxes they'll pay for the rest of their working lives if they manage to hang on in there now? After all, if you have to wait until the end of the tax year to claim back your childcare costs, it isn't going to be much use to those struggling to make ends meet.
The other hitch with tax-deductible childcare is that money isn't always the problem - and perhaps especially for the self-employed (as well as for people working shifts and antisocial hours). Work is often unpredictable for start-ups: sometimes you're madly busy, sometimes worryingly slow, and projects may come up at short notice. What that requires is flexible childcare where you can chop and change days, rather than committing a term ahead to a nursery place you're not sure you will use. But this kind of free-range childcare spells more hassle and less profit for providers, so it's hard to find even if you can afford it. The idea being kicked around the Tory backbenches is to deregulate childminding, so that less rigorously trained and inspected (and presumably cheaper) minders can set up on a more casual basis, perhaps filling this gap: but not everyone will fancy leaving their precious firstborn in no-frills childcare, which lacks the same emphasis on early education as a fully trained childminder.
That said, these ideas at least show there's fresh thinking in politics about childcare - and they should generate rival ideas from other parties too. Here's hoping...

Image: Arvind Balaraman /

Thursday, 19 January 2012

the work-workless balance

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.

Friday, 13 January 2012

the third shift

“People always ask me how long it takes to do my hair. I don’t know, I’m never there.”

There are many good reasons to like Dolly Parton, but that quote sums up most of them. There's something wickedly subversive about looking like a Barbie doll, and then deliberately exposing the conjuring trick behind it - wigs, boob job and all - but something oddly generous, too. She never pretends it's effortless, or universally attainable (as she once said, it takes a surprising amount of money to look this cheap) and by making clear just how much time and money the fantasy costs, she lets the rest of us off the hook.
I've been thinking about this ever since I interviewed the Tory MP Claire Perry last month, for an article about feminism. She was rolling her eyes at the madness of feeling that she had to fit in a run round the park that morning, despite having masses of work and all her Christmas shopping still to do, and we ended up discussing why women in public life - even in careers where looks should be irrelevant - feel such pressure to maintain the illusion of youth.
Perry had even tried to persuade colleagues to join her in a public protest against the pressure to dye their hair, letting their grey roots show for a month to expose the ridiculousness of the pretence. Why not, she argued, just be frank about the fact that 'this is what 47 looks like' - and that not looking like it takes money, effort and time that could be spent on something else?
Defying age was always part of the job description in professions that depend on looks, like showbiz, but it seems to be spreading. Perhaps one reason so many female MPs dye their hair is not just that politics is now widely televised but that its leaders are getting younger: suddenly, one hears of older women - and sometimes men too - struggling to land seats. (One candidate I met was advised to knock a few years off her age, since some constituencies didn't really want over-50s). It's not about projecting an image of beauty but of youth, vigour and thrusting ambition - even though none of these qualities is obviously confined to the under-50s.
There is an obvious injustice in women being made to feel, yet again, that there's something wrong with the way they look. But more pragmatically, this kind of maintenance now risks becoming a sort of 'third shift' for women in some professions: just another time-consuming weekly chore on top of the housework and the job. (As the American writer Nora Ephron once put it, 'sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death.') That's not to deny the pleasure many women get from playing dress-up, but there is a line beyond which it's no longer a pleasure but an obligation.
Which is what is interesting about Perry's idea. A month 'on strike' wouldn't require women in the public eye to abandon all vanity, but it might make all of us think harder about which aspects of it are fun and life-affirming and which aren't - and if even that's too much, a few Parton-style confessions wouldn't do any harm.
On which note, for anyone who saw me this week in Grazia magazine: that's the result of two hours' work by a professional stylist, makeup artist, flattering lighting and a very patient photographer (and doubtless a careful editing out of squillions of hideous reject shots). "Are those your real clothes?" said my mother suspiciously, when she saw the picture. Hell no: that's barely even my real face....
(Photo: Stuart Miles)

Monday, 9 January 2012

on ambition

WHAT happens to ambition, when you have children? I've spent the weekend pondering this one, preparing to debate it on the radio with the formidable FT columnist Heather McGregor, author of a new book of advice for ambitious women. And it's forced me to think more deeply about whether I am still ambitious, and if so, for what.
I've always been competitive and driven (among other things women aren't really supposed to be), and definitely career-orientated, which is why the decision to give up my Proper Job after having my son surprised me more than anyone. I still want, very badly, to be good at what I do - but freelancing has been for me a way of focussing on the part I love (finding out stuff and writing about it) and ditching the stuff I don't (office politics, managing people, tiresome greasy pole-climbing).
So it frustrates me when people automatically assume that leaving full-time work signifies the end of ambition, and a slow agreeable decline to mush: because having spent the last year talking to men and women who made the same leap, I'm more convinced than ever that it's nonsense.
Those interviews were done for the book I've been sweating blood over for more than a year, which is finally out (and whose last minute labour pains have been the reason I've been so shamefully lax about blogging lately).
*look away now if you don't want to see the obligatory plug*

*Ok, you can look again now*
I don't buy that deciding not to scrabble to the top, if to do so means sacrificing everything else that matters, indicates the end of ambition. If anything, I think it's about the multiplying of ambitions - the old desire to excel professionally, fighting against a new one to be a particular kind of hands-on parent, spouse, friend, or child to your own ageing parents. The headhunter Deborah Loudon, who spent years in HR, once told me that it's never the people you expect who quit after having a baby: it's the ferociously committed ones, the lifelong straight-A students who can't stand the idea of not being 100% on top of their game both at home and at work.
The trouble is, of course, that many employers neither recognise nor reward this more plural, diffuse ambition - or even the conventional kind when it comes surging back late in life, after the children are grown. And that's one of the reasons I wrote the book.
I know I'm lucky to have a profession that's very flexible, and to have earned enough that I could afford to take a salary hit. As the saying goes, it's all right for some. But it's not enough for it to be all right for some. It should be all right for many more men and women to do interesting work and still see the children, and with a little imagination from employers, families and government, it could be. The real failure of ambition would be to think that nothing can change.