Child and grandfather doing homework together

Beyond the nappy zone: Why older people and carers need flexibility too

It isn't just the parents of young children who need flexible leave – older people and carers also need the chance to work flexibly

Flexible working is an idea constantly associated with parents of young children, and (things being the way they are) specifically with mothers. Of course, it’s a hugely important issue for mothers and fathers alike – but the political emphasis on the needs of ‘hard working families’ (usually characterised as one or two adults with young children) has meant that the huge potential of flexible working to solve other social and economic problems is being missed.

From what we see in discussions on Mumsnet and our sister site Gransnet, there are two groups in particular who really need flexible working solutions: older people approaching the (ever-changing) retirement age, and carers. For these people, as for parents, flexible working can mean financial independence, stability, social interaction, and the chance to put their talents to good use, while continuing to meet their own needs and the needs of the people who depend on them.

Mother caring for her disabled daughter

Even now, newspapers are reporting that (according to modelling carried out by the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing) a ‘hard Brexit’ of the type that seems currently to be on the cards could result in an increase in the retirement age to 70. Even with a ‘hard Brexit’ out of the equation, everyone agrees that Britons are going to have to work longer as our society ages and the cost of the state pension scheme increases.

In a survey conducted by the Department for Transport in 2013, employers cited older people’s changing work needs as one of the biggest push factors encouraging flexible working. The state retirement age is already slated to rise to 68, and any fall in the value of basic pensions packages will push more people to continue in paid work. Long-term demographic trends will result in a huge growth in the number of older workers from roughly 2030 onwards.

Older workers tend both to want flexible working, and to actually need it for health reasons; however hale and hearty you are (and many seventy-somethings can put much younger people to shame when it comes to being active and engaged), it’s a fact of life that joints will start to creak and energy levels decline as you move towards your eighth decade – if you’re lucky enough to get that far.

Health aside, the ‘sandwich generation’ of 40-, 50- and 60-somethings also need flexibility to meet their caring responsibilities for older parents as well as growing children. Matalan (a member of Mumsnet’s Family Friendly scheme, which rewards innovation and good practice in family friendly policies) has a listening forum for its employees, and one of the major requests to come out of that forum has been phased retirement for older workers, with a gradual reduction in hours rather than a sudden cut-off point. After all, why wouldn’t employers want to make use of the decades of experience and wisdom that older employees can offer?

Older woman at work

For carers, the issues are similarly stark, but subtly different. Mumsnet has hugely active Special Needs forums where parents of children with disabilities offer each other support and advice, and the discussions on there show that one of the most far-reaching consequences of bringing up a child who has complex needs is how enormously difficult it becomes to hold down paid work. A lack of properly qualified childcare workers and multiple health appointments makes it incredibly tricky to commit to a 9-to-5, office-based job, leaving many families dependent on benefits and disability entitlements. Four in ten children with disabilities are growing up in poverty.

And of course, it’s not just children who need care; as we age, many of us will need increasing levels of care, or will need to provide care for older relatives. Carers UK estimates that there are 6.5 million carers in the UK – many will be in work, but others will find it impossible to cope without flexibility.

Of course there are crossovers between these groups: it’s quite possible to be an older person, a parent and a carer all at the same time (as many Gransnet users demonstrate). As a simple matter of justice, nobody should be forced to choose between looking after a loved one and earning a decent income for good work.

As businesses, we all want to employ the best people, including those with experience and expertise – whatever their other commitments. And as a country, we cannot afford to miss out on the benefits to the Exchequer that would arise from enabling flexibility for everyone who needs it. As we look towards the future of our country and think about where we need to be, flexible working can provide answers to some of our knottiest problems.

Mumsnet is working with HRZone and Womba on a special family friendly month, to bring focus to issues around flexible working and returning to work after parental leave. Check out the rest of the materials here.

HR Zone Womba logos