Worrying gap between time parents spend on childcare

  • Date

    Tue 7 Nov 23

Mother with baby on lap looking at book

Parents in the UK are spending more time on childcare than ever before, but some children are still missing out more than others, according to new research from the University of Essex.

The study, published in the Journal of Time Use Research, is the most extensive analysis of the time UK parents spend on childcare, spanning 54 years.

It found a widening gap in the amount of time mothers spend on childcare between those who went to university and those who didn’t.

Using data from the United Kingdom Time-Use Surveys (UKTUS), the study examined how more than 4,500 parents spent their time. It showed that mothers and fathers from all social classes and all educational backgrounds increased the time they spent caring for their children under 12 years old between 1961 and 2015 (the most recent data set), with a significant rise between 1974 and 1983.

Childcare covers a wide range of tasks - everything from feeding and playing to teaching and cleaning.

In 1961, mothers spent an average of 96 minutes per day on childcare, which increased to 162 minutes per day in 2015.

Fathers did 18 minutes of childcare per day in 1961, which increased to 71 minutes per day in 2015.

Starting in the 1980s, the study found a growing disparity in childcare between mothers who went to university and those who did not. In 1961, there was no gap in childcare across educational groups. However, by 2015, a significant disparity in time spent on childcare had emerged, with university-educated mothers spending an extra 20 minutes a day on childcare, or about 120 hours per year.

“Childcare is a key factor in human development, so if children are not getting an equal amount of parental time, they are not getting the same life chances,” explained lead author Dr Giacomo Vagni, from the Department of Sociology. “This should be a cause for concern because differences in child development are a cause of long-term inequalities. This is something policymakers should pay more attention to and look at what can be done to level up the amount of time mothers and fathers spend on childcare.”

Surprisingly, it is women in the professional class – most of whom also went to university – who have been able to devote the most time to childcare despite the fact that they have had the longest working hours since the 1980s.

Looking at the difference of time mothers spend on childcare over the years, Dr Vagni added: “One reason for this increase in childcare is the growing competitiveness for places at top universities and in the job market. Parents have become increasingly aware of the difficulties that their children will face in their working life. It is worth noting that this responsibility still falls heavily on mothers. Fathers are lagging behind in terms of care responsibilities.”

Another explanation, suggests Dr Vagni, is that the unpredictable nature of unskilled jobs could make it difficult for working-class parents to dedicate time to childcare, especially when they have non-traditional work hours such as early mornings, late evenings or weekend shifts.

“Physical demands of working-class jobs may also leave parents feeling more exhausted after work, limiting their ability to dedicate as much time to childcare compared to parents in white-collar jobs,” he added.