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A History of Regulating Working Families

Case study

A History of Regulating Working Families – Strains, Stereotypes, Strategies and Solutions

When researching what we could share for this Spotlight we came across the work of Professor Nicole Busby (University of Glasgow) and Professor Grace James (University of Reading) that highlights discrimination and work-family balance which has been impacted by legislation and policy. They scrutinise areas such as caregiving, social, economic and other factors that have been affected by regulation in the UK and look at how these decisions have shaped working families.

We are delighted that they chose to share this with us, we hope that you agree it is really interesting.

The Book

This new book written by Professor Nicole Busby (University of Glasgow) and Professor Grace James (University of Reading) is based on research which looked at the ways in which the UK’s law and policy framework has developed in the post-war era to produce the current system which regulates the work and home lives of families within contemporary society. The book, which will be published by Hart Publishing in August, scrutinises legislation dealing with discrimination and work-family balance and considers how broader social and economic policies, including social care provision, have impacted on decision-making relating to the work and care arrangements of families and their individual members.

The Aim

This book’s aim is to chart the history of how working families have been regulated in the UK.  It does this by critiquing the various forms of state intervention and its impacts on those groups targeted by law and policy including women workers, parents, children and older people. Although the focus is on the post-war era, as the book demonstrates, many of the current provisions originate from much further back – in some case several hundred years.  The book considers how regulation has shaped – and continues to shape – the lives of such groups in specific, and sometimes unhelpful, ways. This analysis shows how we can learn from an historical perspective and what that perspective can contribute to future policy making.

Key Findings

The original vision of the welfare state as a means of providing a fair allocation of state resources from ‘cradle to grave’ has not been fully realised with progress stalled in part by the anti-discrimination framework itself which assumes that all workers are similarly situated so that the effects of historical discrimination are not accounted for in decision-making. Furthermore, assumptions based on stereotypical notions abound in the rationale underpinning much of the regulatory framework. For example, the mythical ‘standard worker’ – someone who is autonomous and unfettered by care responsibilities – is still the subject of much employment law and policy. This means that those who are unable to conform with this model – mostly women with care responsibilities – are othered and treated as ‘atypical’.

Despite the recognition that anti-discrimination laws and work-family balance policies are needed to ensure equality within workplaces, the focus has traditionally been on economic production. This has meant that reproduction and associated activities have been marginalised so that the unpaid care provided within families is not adequately accounted for or integrated into the resulting legal framework. Because of this, caregiving for children and other recipients is treated as a deviation from the norm which requires accommodation rather than as an essential element of human activity.

Women and men in their roles as parents are subject to a dominant ideology that underpins the policy framework, perpetuating socio-economic factors which restrict free choice. Despite decades of equality legislation, women are inherently seen as caregivers and men as breadwinners within an outdated notion of the family consisting of a household in which two different sex parents and their offspring live together. In reality, families come in many different forms and this adherence to the nuclear model can entrench women’s role as the primary providers of care and overlook men’s role as caregivers as well as preventing the provision of policy relevant  to many other family types, for example, those comprised of same sex parents, lone mothers, ‘non-resident’ fathers, or where care is shared across different households or is performed outside of biological or sexual relationships.

Policy’s reliance on the notion that the standard adult worker is free of care responsibilities means that children have come to be constructed as an obstacle to adult autonomy. Of course, in practice because of the limitations of state responsibility for their care, the presence of children does often impact on the ability of their adult carer – most often their mother – to undertake paid work or to progress in her career.

The focus on economic production has meant that state responses to the care requirements of older people at the end of their productive lives have been patchy and subject to the vagaries of changing economic policy over time.  For example, the state pension, although a critical provision in the fight against poverty in old age, has been used as a political touchstone by successive governments leaving those reliant on it subordinate to the changing ideologies championed by the state at different stages.

The culmination of all of these different factors is illustrated by the paring back of state responsibility which has taken place over recent years.  Caregiving and many associated activities have been privatised so that they are viewed either as a matter of private arrangement within the family or, in the case of institutional or ‘at home’ social care provision, contracted out to private providers. This cuts the ties between the state and the provision and resourcing of care and removes collective responsibility for its performance producing a model that is very different from the original vision of the welfare state.

An Alternative Vision

The book explores the possibilities offered by a different approach to regulation. Based on Martha Fineman’s Vulnerability Theory, this alternative vision recognises vulnerability as a universal human trait rather than as symptomatic of individual weakness.  Our embodied state means that we are all equally vulnerable to harm although we are differently situated in terms of our ability to build resilience which is the counter to vulnerability.  This approach enables us to move beyond the use of stereotypes in the development of policy responses which, rather than re-entrenching the institutionalised inequalities that exist in current provision, should focus on a proactive and anticipatory role for the state in enabling and supporting individuals to build resilience.  The state is always active but the question that should inform such policymaking is, ‘In whose interests does the state act?’

The Current Relevance of this Research

Although the research presented in the book predated Covid-19, its findings are wholly relevant to the issues presented by the current pandemic and its impacts and can be used to critique state responses and to inform social and economic recovery.

The valorisation of productive over reproductive labour and the relative value placed on different kinds of work has been thrown into sharp focus in recent months: the essential work performed by frontline key workers and its traditional ascription as ‘low skilled’ and too often performed under precarious and unstable arrangements has been highlighted.  The marketisation of the social care sector has left many workers and recipients of care exposed to greater degrees of risk than other groups resulting in higher rates of infection and death. The higher infection rates among members of BAME communities has been attributed, at least in part, to the failure of anti-discrimination laws to provide adequate protection against social and economic inequalities.  School and nursery closures, the move to homeworking, largescale furloughing of staff across many sectors and inevitable job losses have disproportionately affected women so that many have unwillingly experienced a return to the life of the 1950s housewife outlined in the book.

Fineman’s assertion, promoted throughout the book, that a recognition of our embodied state and universal vulnerability should provide the bedrock for all state policy relevant to social and economic ordering has never been more relevant.

To find out more about this research, contact

To find out more about Vulnerability Theory, go to:

To order an advance copy of the book, go to: