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Stretching out - the future of flexible, sustainable work

In the UK the average worker already works 32 hours a week. But the average masks a division for some who would prefer more hours and others less.

Our Senior Programme Manager for Fulfilling Work, Patrick Thomson, explains his experience with flexible working and how the government will be consulting on making flexible working the default. 

“Ok! Our next exercise will be drawing the ‘Tree of Life’!”  

It was at a team away day three years ago, and we were doing an exercise in which participants are invited to think of a tree and imagine that each part of the Tree represents something about their life.  

I dutifully began drawing. My ‘work’ branch was looking a little sparse, a few new buds of projects sprouting but, without really intending it, was dominated by a little ginger boy perched on the branch. The word ‘Wednesday’ was scrawled next to him.  

I explained to the facilitator the little boy was my one year old.  

“And… he’s called Wednesday?” 

My son isn’t called Wednesday, but I would soon be looking after him on a Wednesday. I was joining the brave new world of part time working, along with 8.5 million others in the UK. But while nearly 40% of mothers of young children work part time, less than 10% of dads do so

I’ve now been working flexibly and part time for three years, looking after my two little boys. I do this for all kinds of reasons:  

  • It’s good for me – I see my children growing up and am involved in the ups and downs of toddler life.  

  • It’s good for my boys - having their dad fully involved in the childcare.  

  • It’s also better for my wife and I to have more equal careers and income. If more dads considered part time working, one of the major drivers of the gender pay gap (not to mention the even starker pension gap) could be improved.   

In the UK the average worker already works 32 hours a week.

For me this was a choice, and one I was lucky to be able to make. I recognise that I’m privileged at work in many ways - I have a stable job, good levels of control and autonomy, and I work for an employer who positively promotes flexible working, in a sector where there is little social stigma to working part time.  

Not everything is perfect and not everything is easy. Getting a flexible working request accepted is only the first stage: job redesign and a shift in mindset is crucial. Most weeks involving catching up, needing to accept that you can’t do everything you might want to do. This happens in the very best of employers and with the most supportive of colleagues, because the truth is it’s not always straightforward.  

But it’s a decision I’m very glad I’ve made, both for the here and now and for the future. At the Centre for Ageing Better we think a lot about the 100-year life, and what that means for work, careers, and retirement. Longer life expectancies mean that the ‘Tree of Life’ grows taller and our concept of work needs to stretch as well, adjusting our focus between paid work, caring for others, and investing more time to reinvigorate or reinvent ourselves.    

If our ‘work branch’ is too rigid, if it’s not allowed to bend in the breeze or under the weight of someone who needs support, it can snap off altogether. One in five people aged 50-64 who have left the labour market early have done so for health reasons. A quarter of the UK’s adult population have experienced ‘sandwich caring’ at some point in their lives. Large numbers retire early or leave work because it becomes untenable or doesn’t fit with a work/life balance. And often when that happens when we’re older it can feel like it is too late for new branches to grow.  

A shift is in the air – the government will soon be consulting on making flexible working the default. Talk of a four day week might not be as revolutionary as we think. In the UK the average worker already works 32 hours a week. But the average masks a division for some who would prefer more hours and others less. Often if you’re working full time it’s hard to imagine that there might be a stage in your life when you won’t. 

So I have two asks:  

  • For individuals to ask themselves - could, or should I work differently? Would it be better for me and those around me in the long run? Will working flexibly allow me to work better, for longer?  

  • For employers - to challenge their own thinking - are we working this way because it’s the best way? Or, is it just the way we’ve always done it? 

I’m delighted to be included in this year’s Power 50 list of people working flexibly. Flexible work isn’t ‘nice to have’ or niche anymore, this is what the future looks like for everyone – to make work more sustainable, rewarding and fulfilling.  

Fulfilling work - one of our four priority goals

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Patrick Thomson
Senior Programme Manager – Fulfilling work