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What is daily life really like for Britain’s families? We wanted to know the opportunities and challenges they face and whether, across Britain, families are feeling the benefits of economic recovery.
In June 2015, we began to dig deeper into the hopes, fears and aspirations of our country’s families. Over six months we spoke in depth to hundreds of parents, carers, children and young people, and heard from thousands of others about their daily lives, the challenges they face and their expectations of their own futures. This report outlines what they told us...
Unemployment is falling and the number of people in work recently reached a record high, yet for families, moving into work is no guarantee of escaping poverty. The number of people working "excessive" hours has risen and many are struggling to balance work and family life.
While emphasising that money does not guarantee happiness, families tell us that life quickly becomes unmanageable without it. Despite doing their best to provide, many parents feel constantly on the edge of a downward spiral – one missed bill away from crisis. Children are acutely aware of this pressure and the sacrifices their parents can make for them. Parents describe the catch-22 between working longer to provide more for their families and knowing they need more quality family time together. There is no doubt that the majority of parents want to work, but for it to be better paid and to better fit around their family lives.
A quarter of parents think their children’s lives will be worse than their own, with experts warning that this generation could be the first in recent history to see social mobility go into reverse. Children from better off backgrounds continue to do significantly better than those from poorer backgrounds. While young people are under considerable pressure to achieve in education, employers emphasise that experience outside the classroom such as extra-curricular activities makes young job applicants stand out from the crowd.
Parents feel it is increasingly difficult to move away from where you were born and that we are becoming a nation of “haves and have nots”. They worry about the affordability of higher education, access to good jobs and their children being able to rent or buy a home. Families believe there is a wider range of opportunities and extra-curricular activities available but worry that the costs involved can leave them out of reach for their children. Young people describe the pressure on them to achieve which can affect their mental health and many feel that school leaves them ill-prepared for the reality of adult life.
Most children are now introduced to technology before the age of two with access almost universal by the age of four. Despite all the benefits technology can bring, almost half of parents think their children spend too much time in front of screens, while a similar number admit to checking their own phones at the dinner table.
Families say the internet can direct them to relevant services, help them to stay in touch with their wider family network, and offer them support from others in similar situations. But they are worried about the impact it has on quality family time – some say they hardly ever spend time together without everyone on devices in the same room. Both parents and young people speak about the distorted version of reality that social media presents and while they try to resist it, they cannot help but compare themselves with others online – often damaging their self-esteem. Families describe never being able to “switch off” from the internet, feeling constant pressure to present an image of their success and happiness on social media. Children feel unable to “let their guard down” at home, as they could have done in the past.
Despite women’s increased role in the paid workforce, men have yet to take on an equivalent increased role at home. Women still tend to have more caring responsibilities for both children and older relatives, and face a substantial "motherhood" penalty in their pay and careers. With men more likely to work full time, fathers can struggle to be as hands-on in their parenting. While the majority of men say they would like to share parental leave with their partner, most are reluctant to ask their bosses and estimates suggest take-up of shared parental leave is between only 2 and 8%.
Families say the cultural perception of a shift towards equal parenting does not match the reality. Children are also frustrated by the unequal division of housework, parenting or caring at home amongst parents and siblings, with girls suggesting their brothers “have it easier”. Due to the often uneven split in responsibilities, women feel particularly under pressure to “solve it all” – bearing the brunt of family hardship, going without so their children can have what they need and feeling responsible for keeping the family together. Yet fathers tell us they are unclear of their place in family life and feel pushed out and excluded by family services. When they work long hours, fathers say younger children can feel distant and unsure of them, having to almost restart their relationship every time they return home.
A quarter of people believe they have influence locally, but only 14% feel they have any national influence. For young people, their political engagement and confidence in their knowledge can vary significantly by social class. Although many have become disenchanted with mainstream politics, they participate in protest movements and online activism and see political education as a necessity for their further participation.
Families told us that when they had experience of engaging with local MPs or councillors, they spoke very highly of them however, many feel disengaged and remote from politics more generally, leading them to feel powerless and distrustful. The language used puts them off and they want more straight-talking to build their trust. Parents don’t feel politicians face the day to day normality of family life: packing lunchboxes, doing the school run, using public transport and living in “average” housing. Young people want their generation to be educated about politics. Some reflect how high profile the 2015 General Election and Scottish referendum were in their schools and on social media - and how this helped them become informed and empowered - but that few attempts have been made since to engage them further.
Building strong social and emotional foundations in the first three years of a child’s life, particularly through positive parenting, can have the biggest positive impact on a child’s future. The annual cost of family breakdown has been estimated at between £46 and £49 billion, yet many of the support systems families rely on are experiencing significant cutbacks.
Across Britain, families tell us they are each other’s main sources of support and they prefer to turn to one another in times of crisis before they look elsewhere for help. Many face challenges in sustaining their bonds because of the stress of daily life and some are forced apart due to the cost of housing, or availability of local jobs. While parents see childcare provision having improved over recent years, for some it makes little financial sense for them to return to work – and the gap between the end of maternity leave and their child turning three is a significant hurdle. Mothers in particular tell us how vital local services and support networks - which reassure them that they “don’t have to be supermum” - are for their mental health. As their children get older parents say they can struggle to know how best to raise them and can feel poorly prepared. In general, parents want to be able to improve their own lives, but when things go wrong and they can’t do it themselves they need quality, welcoming support that fits around their busy lives.