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Health vs Wealth: Working mothers stuck between a rock and a hard place

Many working mothers attest to being stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to balancing their health and financial security.

New research seems to confirm what many working mothers will already attest to – that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to balancing their health and financial security.

The findings, from the Wellbeing, Health, Retirement and the Lifecourse (WHERL) project, showed that mothers who took time off work to care for their children and then returned to part-time work had health advantages in later life. They were less likely to have a disability, had a reduced risk of frailty, and had lower mortality than mothers who mostly worked full time or were mostly a family carer.

However, the same can’t be said for their levels of financial security. Breaks from paid work and/or long periods of part-time work meant a drop in earnings. And working part-time, even for lengthy periods and on median earnings, resulted in the accumulation of very little private pension for women.

Wealth and financial security are two key dimensions of a good later life. The WHERL research confirms that what happens to us and the paths we take across the life-course – including, getting married, having a family, our education and our work histories – can significantly influence our health and wellbeing.

These findings raise important questions for mothers like me. Making decisions about balancing work and caring for your family are already complex, ranging from immediate concerns about earnings, cost and availability of childcare, and your partner’s work situation, right through to the longer-term considerations about our ability to save into a pension. While interesting, it is unlikely that the findings of this research will help us navigate this maternal minefield any better.

But, where the findings of the WHERL research can be most helpful is in guiding policy makers. For example, there appears to be more to be gained, in relation to health in later life, from labour market and childcare policies that support parents to take a break from work to care for their children and then support them to work longer and delay retirement.

More broadly, changes to pensions policy might help improve financial security in later life.  For example, within the government’s current review of auto-enrolment, it would be useful to see proper consideration of how well this policy supports those in part-time work to save enough for retirement.

But the substantive issue is a labour market one. It is not sufficient for policy makers to simply focus on getting women back into work, it is the quality of this work that matters.

Too many women are having their jobs ‘downgraded’ if they move from full-time to part-time work, which means they are losing more earnings and the economy is not benefiting from valuable skills and experience.

Research from IFS about the gender pay gap highlights that women in paid work receive about 18% less per hour than men, with the gap widening consistently for 12 years after a first child is born, by which point women receive a staggering 33% less pay per hour than men. Women over 40 are most affected.

The creation of good quality, part-time jobs is obviously a role for employers but government needs to lead the way. Policy solutions such as making all jobs flexible by default; creating national schemes which support women back into work; and a carers strategy which offers greater support to those juggling work and caring could be part of the answer.

The WHERL findings put it in black and white, but most people would consider it intuitive that our work and family histories will make a difference to our experiences of health and wealth in later life.

The challenge for policy makers is to design policies which are flexible enough to respond the different experiences of individuals, not just the ‘average’ person. Working mums are just one of a number of groups who would have much to gain.

First published on Huffington Post.

Claire Turner
Director of Evidence (job share)