Can we strike a work life balance that leaves everyone a good pension?

Pardon the Interruption

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International Men’s Day is on 19 November. If this is the first time you’ve heard of it, it just shows why it’s so important – and here is why focusing on men can even make a difference to pensions. 
Men’s Day aims to raise awareness of the wellbeing of boys and men and highlight positive role models, countering images of masculinity that associate it mainly with strength and frequently violence – with direct implications for society as a whole and men themselves. Younger men are less likely to see a doctor than women, more likely to drink alcohol at hazardous levels and one in five men dies before the age of 65. In 2018-2020, life expectancy at birth declined for men. They are more likely both to be perpetrators and victims of violent crime. 

Men’s work patterns impact women’s vice versa 

How men see their role also shapes their work lives. A focus on career positively impacts their earnings – and crucially, negatively impacts their partner’s earnings and pension. This is why, in looking at the gender pension and pay gaps, looking just at women is like trying to drive a car with two wheels – it will never get you where you want to go. To solve the problem, you need to consider both sides of the equation. But are employers ready to do that? 
Let’s take a step back. Research shows that earnings and pensions savings are about equal between men and women – until the age when children tend to arrive, and women’s earnings drop, leading to an even bigger drop in pensions.  
This is largely because women take maternity leave and then either drop out of the workforce or work part-time. In her excellent blog, Barnett Waddingham’s Melissa Blissett looks at the hidden flexibility gap men face. Even though men in the workplace often have children and say they want to play a bigger role in their children’s lives, they can find it difficult to ask for flexible working.  
Flexible working is a relatively new prospect for men – it is a path women had to tread some years ago and have now established for themselves as a route. It has many pitfalls, from careers stalling to working full-time hours for part-time pay, but this could potentially improve if it becomes more normal for men to do the same. 

It starts with shared parental leave  

The issue of flexible work begins immediately when a child is born – with the parental leave question. When shared parental leave - introduced in the UK from April 2015 – was first announced, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said: “We need to challenge the old-fashioned assumption that women will always be the parent that stays at home – many fathers want that option too.” 
Employment relations minister Jo Swinson said: “Mothers and adopters will be able to choose when they return to work and fathers and partners will be able to spend more time bonding with their children during the precious early stages of their development.” 
Despite this ambition, very few men took up the offer. There may have been a ‘first mover’ fear, but perhaps the biggest barrier was that employers had not yet moved on. Most employers still do not provide paternity pay comparable to maternity pay. The Trades Union Congress has called for the shared parental leave policy to be scrapped and replaced with a ‘use it or lose it’ period for both parents. 
Sweden found that men only started using paternity leave in greater numbers – so that it would be normalised – by introducing a rule whereby 90 days of leave are reserved for each parent and cannot be moved – they are forfeited if not taken. The rule has led to a massive increase in take-up of paternity leave. This is key, because the pattern established when the first child is born tends to be the one a family will adopt going forward. 
Economic secretary to the Treasury John Glen, who champions the Women in Finance Charter, has previously highlighted the need to look at the work patterns and constraints of men if more women are to be encouraged back into the economy – with diversity shown to lead to more innovation and mitigate the risk of groupthink.  
If we insist on linking pensions to economic activity, we must ensure that there is equal access to being economically active. That can only be the case if policymakers and employers acknowledge that children don’t raise themselves and not all parents want to avoid seeing their offspring - something that applies equally to men as to women. The pensions gap will only show marginal improvements – if any – without modernising the legal framework in which parents move so that fathers and mothers have equal access and compensation for parental leave and flexible work. 

Do you agree?