Professor John FitzGerald yesterday made an interesting contribution to a SIPTU conference in Cork. He said that while affordable child care is already a big problem, it will get much worse. Among the reasons he cited for this are that many more women than men are progressing to third level education and employers will find that women account for a significantly larger share of the supply of skilled labour than men. Employers will have to attract and hold skilled women and men, many of whom have young children. Meanwhile, the supply of child care will likely decrease.
One can see where this leads. Traditionally, Professor FitzGerald said, childcare was provided by women with less than a Leaving Certificate education. Those numbers will fall as more women remain in education, causing the price of childcare to rise as providers will have higher potential earnings in other sectors due to their higher level of education.
He added that while the largest group of people in society today comprises people in their 20s, in a decade it will be those in their 30s. This will have serious implications for society and employment because those people will have children and more children will need child care.
In a decade those who are up late dancing now will be up late walking the floor with their small children. The number of young parents will rise in the coming decade. They will be better educated than the previous generation and expect good careers for both partners.
We must provide for this serious problem which will soon become an acute crisis. It has not reached that level yet but people who are working, particularly women, are stretched to the limits financially and in terms of their time.
As to what the Government can do, I will restrict myself to broad principles. The package must be imaginative and cover money, allowances and tax credits. The important point, however, is that women and men have realistic options. At the moment they are almost prisoners of a system which requires them to go to work and pay all their money into a crèche if they have children. They pay such a substantial amount that they have very little spending money left over.
Alternatively they make a decision to stay at home leaving a large quantity of wasted skilled labour in the economy in the form of women who feel obliged to stay at home because it is not worth their while exploiting the labour in which the State has invested so much through their education. There is merit in a system which gives them options and compels employers to give them options to work part-time.
The message is that we want the Minister for Finance to produce an imaginative, comprehensive package that will solve this problem.