Can workplace childcare policies reverse the plummeting birth rate?

Tracey Guest explores what businesses can do to better support working parents

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The UK’s birth rate is sinking to a historic low, with fewer babies being born in 2021 than during the 1930s depression. The widely speculated Covid-induced ‘baby boom’ quickly became a rather more realistic ‘baby bust’. History has taught us that people stop having babies when times are tough. However, this decline didn’t start when Covid hit the shores of Britain. It had been a decade in the making, with figures showing that childbirths began to drop as early as 2011

The childcare penalty

Among the myriad reasons leading to this notable decrease, childcare is perhaps the most decisive and persistent factor complicating parents’ ability to juggle a family and a career. Mothers in particular are severely affected by the so-called ‘childcare penalty’. And indeed, their generally predominant involvement in childcare continues to put them in a bind, compelling them to sacrifice career progression for the sake of flexible work arrangements.  

Of course, contemporary society has somewhat adapted to this much-needed flexibility. Working parents are now able to ask for flexible working after 26 weeks of service and receive 30 hours of free childcare during term time weeks if they have children of pre-school age, and following the pandemic many people have been able to negotiate their working hours and locations. 

But, while welcome, all these changes are still insufficient to alleviate the tensions between paid work and childcare that most parents are faced with. For example, more could be done to address the cost of childcare, which is the biggest deterrent to women going back to work. In the UK, where childcare is the third most expensive in the world, women with two children can pay about half of their earnings in childcare, amounting to a weekly cost of about £526. And this huge expense doesn’t end with children starting to go to school. Wraparound care is also particularly costly, averaging at about £3,224 per year, per child. 

In a nutshell, the barriers to mothers returning to full-time work are significant and, to enable women to overcome them, both corporate and statutory support could target this contentious area of parenthood. In the UK, there are a number of statutory childcare entitlements available to working parents, beyond the usual maternity and paternity leave. These include: emergency dependants’ leave (enabling employees to take time off to deal with unexpected emergencies for dependants); parental leave (which entitles parents to take 18 weeks of unpaid leave for each child up to their 18th birthday); and flexible working requests, (which can be made once a year and are only available to employees with 26 weeks’ service). 

How can employers support working parents? 

The first step could be meeting the demand for flexible work – a desire shared by 86 per cent of working parents – by making this policy available to all employees regardless of their length of service. 

Similarly, childcare support including contribution towards childcare fees, vouchers or in-house facilities could go a long way in providing financial and emotional reassurance to working parents. Again, these could be extended to those without caring responsibilities, who should be entitled to benefits of equal value. 

Finally, combating the stigma around fathers requesting flexible working or taking paternity or parental leave should be a priority for all businesses. Less than a third of eligible men take paternity leave and most admit this is because of discrimination or perceived discrimination in the workplace. Shifting this perception could instil respect for the role of fathers as nurturing carers in broader society, ultimately breaking old-fashioned stereotypes. 

Inverting the trend

Many commentators have stated that becoming a parent in 2022 can be one of the worst financial decisions you can make. But an ageing society can cause its own issues. To invert this trend, childcare costs need to be more affordable and help with childcare needs to be more accessible. This would not only benefit employers by giving them access to a wider pool of talent, but also those wanting to return to or remain in the workplace, by giving them an opportunity to balance a career with childcare responsibilities.  

While statutory measures could reduce the cost of childcare, employers could support parents with flexible arrangements where they can, helping couples to evenly distribute the load.

Tracey Guest is head of employment law at Slater Heelis