Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


The thing about children

01 May 2012

Is that we, as in Society, need people to have them and then we need people to look after them.

I was reminded about this by watching last night’s Newsnight, which included a segment about maternity / paternity leave.1

The point was made, as it often is, that maternity leave is a burden on employers. This is fairly obviously true. Employers can recover the cost of statutory maternity pay, but often have more generous contractual schemes. So for many employers there is the direct financial cost of paying one employee maternity pay while paying another employee to do their job.

In addition to the direct costs there are substantial indirect ones. The practical implications of losing an employee to maternity leave are significant. Normally, maternity cover needs to be arranged, which means recruitment and training costs. If there is no cover, additional work must be taken on by other employees. Just working out what to do can be fiddly.

All of this is disruptive and expensive, in time, effort and money.

But we need people to have children and look after them. If they don’t we’ll all end up in a dystopian science fiction novel.2

To avoid this, Society has to find a way of supporting people while they have and raise children. Historically, we’ve done this by splitting ourselves into men and women. Then getting the women to have and raise the children, while denying them access to the job market.3

Over the course of the last century the balance has moved somewhat. Women’s access to the job market has improved beyond all recognition.4 At the same time, men have taken on a greater parental role.5 Not to mention that the state is now much more heavily involved in child rearing, in large part through the education system.

One of the results of all this change is that more of the burden of producing the next generation now falls on employers. There are more women in the workplace and there are rules to protect them. It is understandable that employers sometimes find this annoying.

But we need people to have children and look after them. If the burden does not fall on employers, it must fall elsewhere. Either on parents directly, if we move back closer to the old system. Or on the government, which would need to provide support to parents via the benefits system or take a greater direct role of some kind in bringing up children.

People who argue for reducing maternity rights in work, should be clear about who they intend to shift the burden to. Or how we’re to avoid that dystopia. Because, ultimately, it’s as important to society that there be a future generation to support us all in our old age as it is to have a thriving, entrepreneurial economy.6

  1. They seem to have forgotten adoption leave. And I’m going to refer to maternity leave from now on, because that is the vast bulk of parental leave in practice. 

  2. See The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. 

  3. ‘Getting’, in this context, covers a multitude of sins. 

  4. With some way to go to reach parity with men. 

  5. With even further to go to reach parity. 

  6. Any consideration of maternity leave’s impact on the economy also needs to try to take account of the impact of limiting the job prospects of women who have or might have children. 

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