Home / Comment / In brief

The Hidden Costs on Hard–working Families

The Hidden Costs on Hard–working Families

In anticipation of the government’s new childcare funding Paul Bickley reflects on the tricky task of synthesising paid and unpaid work. 26/03/2024

Much to my relief, all my children are well past the age of nursery care. When watching colleagues and friends navigate the complex and costly decisions around childcare and return to work, all I can really say is that “this too shall pass”. The nursery run will one day be a school run, and then one day after that their son or daughter will head out of the door and get themselves to school. There will still be all sorts of parenting challenges, but the eye–watering expense or the stress of sitting in a traffic jam as you clock up a nursery late–charge won’t be one of them.  

Pulling the camera back, we see that the tension felt by families is actually the product of a troubled system. From 1 April, the government will start funding 15 hours childcare per week (for 38 weeks per year). The extra money, however, is increasing demand for a provision which is already at its limit. Nurseries have recently been closing because of the twin pressures of inflation and staff retention. Those that survive can’t simply magic up places to meet new demand, limited as they are by the physical space they have available. Those that have capacity are increasing the cost of unfunded hours in order to cover an alleged shortfall on the funded hours. A government policy intended to get parents (by which we largely mean mothers) into work might, at least in some cases, have the opposite effect of forcing them out of work. The extra money made for an eye–catching headline “billions more for childcare”, but it not in itself create capacity within a system that itself has multiple other inputs. 

Pull the camera back further still. This significant public investment is intended to help parents (again, we largely mean mothers) into the labour market. There are many good and obvious reasons to do this. Working families are earning, taxpaying, and spending families. Given that the childcare obligation falls far more often on mothers, it ensures their skills are retained, so it’s good for workplaces too. But there’s no shame in admitting that the government’s motives are probably more pragmatic than idealistic: more labour = bigger economy. Given the UK’s stubbornly high rates of economic inactivity, the government will pull on every lever available.  

But it is worth pausing to consider that, for good or ill, we have been engaged in a large–scale social experiment over the last few decades. Both children and parents have been encouraged to move out of the home and into the marketplace – children for their care, and parents for work. It is incredible, but true, that the employment rate for mothers is now higher than for either women or men without dependent children.1 The number of women in work is 1.7 million higher than it was even one short decade ago and, at 1.3 million, the number saying they are not looking for a job because they are looking after families or households is now at the lowest on record. On the other hand, we have a workforce of around 350,000 people, 98% of whom are women and generally paid at wage floor rates, providing daycare which releases parents (again, largely mothers) from the home for the workplace. 

When it comes to families, there has been a steady and ongoing shift towards dual income households. In fact, since 2020 the most common working arrangement in couples with dependents is for both parents to be working full–time (latest figures from April–June 2021 show 50.4% with both parents working full–time, with 44.1 have male working full time and partner part time). As an aside, if a ‘typical’ couple household 30 or 40 years ago had one adult working full–time, but now has two adults working full–time, that typical family may feel like they have a higher standard of living, but they have a higher standard of living at least in part because they are cumulatively working more hours. In the early years a hefty chunk, if not the majority, if not all of that extra income is spent on childcare cost.  

It’s hard to adopt a critical stance to this experiment. The opportunity to stay in the workplace has been profoundly liberative for many women. But the difficulty in extending childcare support is indicative of some of its complexities and compromises. I think most of those proverbial ‘hard–working families’ would agree that the overall bargain is mixed. In spite of significant public expenditure, childcare is both hard to access and expensive. Many mothers want to be in employment, but more than we like to admit want something else. According to a Civitas analysis of the Department for Education Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents, a clear majority of working mothers of children aged 0 to 4 would prefer to reduce their working hours than increase them (67% vs. 29%).  

Our latest report, Working Five to Nine: How We Can Deliver Work/Life Integration, the second in Theos’ Work Shift series, asks whether we have the best structures for integrating paid and unpaid work. After all, our roles in the home and community can contribute to the public good as much as our paid employment. Consider, for instance, that there are upwards of 5 million people who provide some unpaid care in the UK. Supporting carers in employment is crucial, but we can only do that if we acknowledge all the work they do which will never get a whiff of a pay check. So with parents. But then so with anybody. Whether it’s parenting young children, caring for elderly or ill relatives, or volunteering at a homelessness shelter, then the most essential, public, and significant work we do is not necessarily the work we do for our employer.  

These are not easy problems to resolve, and prescribing one size fits all solutions won’t help. We believe the that the working arrangements which give as much flexibility as possible will help workers to integrate paid and unpaid obligations. We should continue to explore, for example, four day weeks in sectors, companies and teams for which it is appropriate. We need and want people in the workplace, but we should remember that work was made for humans, not the other way round.


Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

Photo by Alexander Grey on Pexels

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley

Posted 26 March 2024



See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.