Modern Family Index – This Year’s Findings

Our head of thought leadership, Jennifer, reflects on a trend towards greater flexibility in the UK workforce showing up in our biggest annual piece of research.

Work plus What? 

We have just launched the 2020 report from Bright Horizons annual Modern Families Index with charity Working Families. You might’ve already seen it as it’s received a whole host of media coverage from the Observer to the BBC and the CIPD to HRreview and much more. It’s a big deal in terms of how authoritative it is. 

The Rise of the Flexible Family-Friendly Workforce

The Modern Families Index (MFI) has run annually for 8 years and trends are now emerging. It seems there’s been a shift, according to this year’s Index, towards greater flexibility. 

More than half - 55% - of all those who responded report that they work flexibly in some way. The survey captures input from over 3,000 parents and shows the millennial generation’s changing expectations of working practices with more and more fathers (or put, more broadly, parents of any gender) wanting to work flexibly. In fact, 78% of millennial fathers now work flexibly in some way, compared with just half of all parents aged 36-55. 

Interestingly, this year for the first time, the survey population included parents with children up to 18 years old (formerly up to 13 years). Does the increase in flexibility simply reflect the changing world of work or – perhaps – that parents of older children have found a way to achieve greater flexibility? Perhaps both. Certainly, our direct experience on the ground is that flexibility is becoming more often the way to get things done, rather than seen as an individual privilege. Always, of course, with reference to role, location and other factors. Facetious examples, but it remains challenging to be a security guard or reception desk worker working from home, though it is increasingly common for employers to ask what flexibility could be found in the role, instead of simply ruling it out). 

Blurred Lines?

One of the other headlines from the Index – which you may have seen in the media – is the existence of a tech-driven blurring of lines between ‘work life’ and ‘home life’. Whether or not you have family responsibilities, you will no doubt recognise the ‘always-on’ experience highlighted in the report.

47% agreed that technology had blurred the boundary between work and home and 44% check emails or do other work in the evenings. That said, 56% of respondents described themselves as middle managers or above (including professionals) where there is some expectation of flexibility in all directions (checking emails in the evening might be fine if you’ve also been able to arrive later after a school drop-off). 

It does perhaps simply urge greater awareness of the impact of different working styles: 48% of parents said being able to work from home had probably increased the hours they work. With greater flexibility comes the need for better dialogue all round about workload and deliverables. We must also recognise – as anyone who has come anywhere near the Brexit debate will know – that 48% is not a majority.

There are also different working styles and preferences: ‘Separators’ like to maintain a clear boundary, while Integrators or Blenders are comfortable with a give and take blend (25% in the Index disagreed that lines were now too burred).

The changing face of family

There are other interesting trends in the survey, pointing towards a less gendered society: respondents report a greater level of equally shared childcare – 31% who are in a couple of any kind report this – and 83% of those underline that this equal sharing is by their own choice. 56% of couples who share care equally report an above average level of wellbeing.

  • Interestingly, the full MFI report puts this shift toward shared care in the context of the wider UK population with the time spent by parents on housework and indeed working hours overall having fallen in the first 15 years of the 21st Century.

Other research by NatCen* shows that the gender gap in housework might have fallen as much through mothers doing less as through fathers or partners doing more. Perhaps this all-round reduction offers a practical solution to the ‘chore wars’ deadlock that many of us will recognise, whether or not we have tiny feet to tidy up around!

Family is more than parenting

The rise of the Sandwich Generation is also present in the Modern Families Index: although still targeting a population of parents, this year’s study also highlighted the increasing elderly population, and the part played by eldercare in a growing number of working people’s lives.

This segment of carers is set to grow significantly over the next decade and will undoubtedly seek the support and recognition that the demands of parenting are now starting to receive. 

To this end, the recommendations of MFI report include the suggestion that a ‘Lifecycle Approach’ is helpful to accommodate different life stages. The Index found that if employees feel their organisation cares about their work-life balance, they are more than doubly likely to be happy at work and stay in their job. (78% vs 34%). 

In our experience, many employers have already woken up to this engagement opportunity, which in all likelihood includes your own if you are reading this.


Jennifer Liston-Smith


Jennifer heads up our Thought Leadership activities as well as having built the Coaching & Consultancy side of the business. With many years' experience in large organisations providing leadership coaching and management development programmes, Jennifer was one of the UK pioneers of maternity coaching in the early 2000s. More recently, she was the architect and overall author of the Parental Leave Toolkit and Parental Leave Toolkit for Managers, our dynamic online coaching programmes.