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Practicalities first, ambition a distant second: New report sheds light on the working lives of single parents

04 September 2012
Many single parents are being forced to take on junior jobs that offer more flexible hours and proximity to home, a new report from Gingerbread has found. Lack of flexible jobs, and unaffordable and unavailable childcare, are still proving to be the biggest barriers to single parents seeking work that matches their skills.

Single parents taking part in the research into work aspirations put practicalities such as having a job close to their child’s school, with part-time or flexible hours and an understanding line-manager, far above considerations of the role, salary or how the job suits their skills or experience when job-hunting.  Two thirds of single parents said their ideal job would offer them part-time or flexible hours to fit with their caring responsibilities and two fifths (38%) would ideally have a job that allowed for emergency time off.

59% of all single parents are already in work (1) and 75% of those who aren’t, aim to be within the next three years (2). Most of the remainder are either long-term disabled themselves, or caring for a child with disabilities (3).  Researchers found that single parents’ drive to work comes not only from their desire to provide financially for their family, but to be a role model for their child as well as being challenged and stimulated by their job – however, the report found that this ambition is often stifled by practical issues such as lack of childcare or flexible hours.

Gingerbread chief executive Fiona Weir said: “The real picture of single parents today is a million miles away from the ‘scrounging’ stereotype. Single parents want to work, provide for their family and be a role model to their children, but they are being held back by a system that isn’t fit for purpose.
“Affordable, modern childcare options and more flexible jobs could transform the lives of millions of working families across the UK, not just single parents, and offer real benefits for employers and our economy. Even small changes can make a big difference, so that single parents can pursue the jobs that would make the most of their skills and provide a better life for their families.”

The career trend of ‘bumping down’, where parents trade responsibility and higher pay for more flexible working arrangements, also emerged from Gingerbread’s single parent focus groups.  Some single parents are actively choosing to have less responsibility at work because they felt this would give them greater job flexibility and offer them more time with their families, while others feel strongly that they shouldn’t have to ‘dumb down’ their careers simply because they need different working hours.

Karen, 39, a single parent from Middlesbrough said: “Until my husband left I had a well-paid managerial position, [but] now I struggle as a lone parent trying to juggle work around school hours. Although my employer is supportive I have had to take a low paid part-time job which doesn’t use any of my skills in order to put my son first. No managerial position would allow me to work part-time or home-work.”

The report The only way is up? The employment aspirations of single parents also interviewed employers across the retail, technology and public sectors to discover how their recruitment, retention and development policies could help single parents in the workplace.  Employers outlined the benefits of taking a more flexible approach in order to recruit and retain the staff their businesses need and the steps they are taking to support staff: from home working to core hours and shift swaps.

Fiona Weir added: “Some employers already offer a great package of options to help single parents balance work and raising their kids, but we need all employers to follow these positive examples”.

You can read the pdf of the Key Findings document below, or access the full report here:


Notes to editors
(1) ONS (2012), Working and workless households 2012 – Statistical bulletin, Table P
(2) Skipp, A (2012) The only way is up? The employment aspirations of single parents
(3) Maplethorpe et al. (2010) Families with children in Britain: Findings from the 2008 Families and Children Study (FACS), DWP Research Report No 656.
• The only way is up? The employment aspirations of single parents research consisted of:
o A literature review focussing on single parent aspirations and what works in training programmes which help people get into work employability programmes
o Focus groups and interviews with 34 single parents about work aspirations
o A survey of more than 1,000 single parents on employment aspirations
o Interviews with 14 employers and employment support providers (employability training and welfare to work providers) to understand their perspectives and to test emerging suggestions for policy and practice change
• The report was funded by the Big Lottery Fund
• Interviews with Gingerbread and single parent case studies are available on request.
• Gingerbread is launching a campaign to tackle the barriers to work for single parents in October

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