The reaction that we have anecdotally observed in relation to the introduction of the new shared parental leave regime is that there is an assumption that men will not take up the new shared parental leave. We explore below whether or not this assumption is correct, and why this generation of employees might be prepared to break down previous boundaries.
Why might the status quo be broken by Shared Parental Leave?
There is a widely held perception that men will think that it will be detrimental to their career if they take any form of parental leave. Culturally, it is still most common for women to take on the majority of the childcare. This is view is supported by the fact that in 2011/12 less than 1% of fathers took up their right to take additional paternity leave under the system which is being replaced by the shared parental leave framework (see here).
There seem to be a number of elements which could catalyse cultural change in this area. The Government is seeking to encourage fathers to take parental leave by, for example, introducing the new shared parental leave regime. The law is also seeking to encourage more flexibility in the workplace, extending the right to request flexible working to all employees. Employers are operating more flexible workplaces, with an increase in remote working, hot desking and flexible working.
Studies have shown that generation Y-ers (broadly those who were born after 1980) value work/life balance, and the majority of them are unwilling to commit to making their work their only priority, even with the “carrot” of generous remuneration later in the their working life (http://pwc.to/1eudzgx). Generation Y values a flexible working culture particularly around hours. There is a changing attitude towards work and career. Generation Y-ers see the option to retire as an ever retreating horizon with the increase in the state retirement age and the death of the final salary scheme. This makes Gen-Y determined to squeeze more “life” in now, as they will likely be working well into their 70s.
This generation is moving towards an increasing engagement of fathers in their children’s lives. More men are working flexibly and more couples do not see it as a “given” that the mother will take a primary role in child-caring. Couples are increasingly sharing domestic duties and childcare as well as juggling two demanding careers. Many generation Y-ers were brought up in families with two working parents and are not afraid of this arrangement, often developing the sharing of responsibilities further than their parents’ generation.
Is change likely to happen now?
It seems that there are now a number of ingredients in place to form the backdrop for a seismic shift in the culture of both parenting and the “normal” career path to increasingly include periods of flexible working and parental leave. We believe that this is likely to happen if not immediately, then within the medium term of around 5 to 15 years and that there will be a much higher take-up by men of shared parental leave than currently predicted.
We do not have to look far to see that this is happening elsewhere. In Norway there has certainly been a sea- change in the culture – in 1993 only 3% of fathers took paternity leave, whereas in 2011 this had increased to 90% of fathers taking at least 12 weeks’ paternity leave (http://bit.ly/1nZCCSM).
How should employers respond?
For savvy employers who do not want to miss out on recruiting and retaining the best Gen-Y talent, it is important not to stick their heads in the sand about this changing landscape. It is important not to give the impression internally or externally that men should not take this up for fear of hindering their career prospects. Gen-Y-ers value flexibility and a modern outlook in an employer. For some employers this can be a very valuable USP – perhaps they are not paying as much as their competitors, but can offer flexibility. The evidence suggests that Gen-Y-ers value flexibility in their work life more highly than remuneration. Sophisticated and forward-thinking employers will ensure that they create an environment where employees feel that they can exercise their parental rights without damaging their career.
What should HR be doing about this?
For HR professionals, this will also of course create a significant challenge to persuade the top level management that this is the right strategy. Management, who are not likely to be Gen-Y and whose priorities are likely to be at the opposite end of the spectrum to Gen-Y, often find it difficult to understand that this sort of cultural shift is required to attract and retain the best talent.
Another challenge is likely to be how businesses can resource this increase in flexibility, particularly where shared parental leave requests are made at short notice, and there is likely to be a growth in interim/temporary workers to fill this gap. Thought should be given as to how an employer will respond to a request which is potentially harmful to its business.
HR (and their employment lawyers) will need to help put in places policies and procedures which protect employers whilst ensuring an appropriate degree of flexibility.