Seven years in the lives of British families
Evidence on the dynamics of social change from the British Household Panel Survey

Three: Couples, work and money

Changes in patterns of family formation in Britain in recent decades have been documented in the previous chapter. In tandem with this, there have been changes in the labour market. As Chapter Four will show, male employment has become less secure while women are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, albeit often in part-time rather than full-time jobs.

The contrast with marriage and family life in the 1950s is stark, where the economic roles of spouses were symmetrical but markedly different. Men had jobs, and in an era of full employment, this meant that virtually all men worked between the end of full-time schooling and the statutory retirement age. There is a debate as to how to characterise women’s longer-term employment histories, but with some specific exceptions, women left the paid labour force at marriage, or at the birth of their first child, or they may never even have entered it. A minority of those who left during the early part of marriage returned later. These patterns gave a characteristic lop-sided M-shape to the graph of women’s employment by age (Dale, 1987). Instead of paid work in the labour force, during the early stage of family formation women took virtually sole responsibility for unpaid work within the household, and maintained this irrespective of any subsequent re-attachment to the labour market. The evidence suggests that the total amounts of paid work done by men roughly balanced the total time spent on unpaid work by women (Young and Willmott, 1974). However, the work itself was strongly segregated by gender.

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