Golly, it’s hard to keep up with the Brits and their reports on families and parenting. You would think that government and academics actually understood something about those subjects, but more often than not they add to the confusion.
The latest “major report” to pronounce on the fate of the family advises the government not to try to preserve the “traditional family” as it crumbles under the impact of marital breakdown and workplace pressures. The Family and Parenting Institute says the family as we knew it is no longer “the norm” and government efforts to rescue it are futile; members of the extended family — grandparents, uncles and aunts, even siblings and cousins — can make up for absent parents, says the FPI.
To be precise, that is what the institute’s new chief executive, Katherine Rake, said at its annual conference at the end of November –with heaps of data in the major report (Family Trends – British families since the 1950s) to back her up. Dr Rake, who heads an organisation with about three dozen staff and has “a strong background in social policy and research” and an OBE, predicted a dramatic change in the role of parents in the next decade. Working mothers, absent dads, delayed childbearing, divorce and cohabitation would all play a role.
She predicted that there will be no such thing as a “typical family” in the next 10 to 20 years.
“People are constantly redefining what it means to be a family,” she said.
“What we are seeing is that family shape is changing all the time, the notion of a traditional nuclear family …. certainly isn’t the norm now.”
She went on: “Because people are having children later and because there is more divorce and separation, what is happening is that people draw on resources from right across the family and their families can be more involved.”
The one thing the government — and, presumably anyone else — should not do is try to stop the rot:
“What policy-makers must not do is fall into the trap of investing large sums of money trying to reverse the tide of trends by trying to encourage more ‘traditional families’.
“Nor should parents allow them to fall back on old assumptions, which has meant mothers carrying the burden of changing families and parenting demands.”
It is relevant to note here that Dr Rake formerly headed the Fawcett Society — dedicated to pay equality between men and women — and before that had a spell in the Women’s Unit, of the government’s Cabinet Office where she edited a ground-breaking report on women’s lifetime incomes. So she has a big interest in what women earn — even bigger, perhaps, than in their role as mothers.
The fact is that the Conservative Party has promised to support married parents with tax breaks which would allow women who stay at home to pass on their allowance to their husband, and this is likely to be an election issue next year. Dr Rake’s speech and the report that goes with it looks like an attempt to warn the parties off supporting the family based on marriage. Which, unfortunately, is what one has come to expect of social policy experts, especially those who advertise themselves as feminists.