If one believes the press, new battle lines at work are being drawn up. Not between employer and employee, men and women, but between parents and the child-free. People without children are losing out on all fronts: not only do they not qualify for special childcare allowances and leave, but they must also cover for those shirkers - parents - who rush into work late because the nanny was sick or leave early to go to a school play.
As in all of life, it is our daily experiences that get to us. Whereas most people do not complain that statutory parental leave, for example, is funded out of general taxation, they might have an issue with having to pick up the slack from the person sitting next to them who's just gone part-time. Much of this will be just noise: some people are simply more diligent than others, and for the less conscientious, children can provide a wonderful excuse. For every parent who is cutting corners there will be another working evenings to ensure the job gets done.
But real tensions exist. Adam, for example, child-free himself, runs a small business with a partner who is a working mother. Their recent conversation about whether Adam should sacrifice his holiday to prepare a vital sales pitch was somewhat galling, particularly as they have had this conversation for several years in a row. His business partner's holidays are based around the children's school holidays and so have always been sacrosanct.
Yet as family-friendly policies morph into more general work/life balance ones, flexible working is as much win-win as it is win-lose for parents v the child-free. The opening up of career opportunities to women has generated a cultural shift towards it being desirable for everyone to have more balance in their lives, with less blind acceptance of a career-based definition of success driven by workaholism.
Opportunities now exist for people to work a shorter week in order to pursue a hobby they are passionate about. I for one would be delighted if more people did this; in a world where anyone might choose to place more emphasis on an outside interest and less on their job, it would make less sense for employers to discriminate against women of childbearing age because they fear they might take time out.
Perhaps even more importantly, arguments claiming that the child-free are discriminated against seem to me to be based on the fallacy that having children is simply an individual, lifestyle choice. At the micro level this is axiomatic - but do we really want to live in a society designed around this principle? Consider what that would look like. No parental leave or tax breaks - it would be impossible for almost any woman to both work and have children. The economy would shrink. Meanwhile, individual children would support only their own parents, much as they do in many third world countries today. Surely we don't want to march down this road, towards such madnesses as designer babies and private armies?
Pompous as it may sound, at the macro level, having children is absolutely not a lifestyle choice but a service to society. OK, hands up, I'm a parent; I hereby declare my interest. But I think I say this with good reason.
Children perpetuate the human race, for a start, which most people would see as a generally positive thing. Plus, our children will be supporting both parents and the child-free in their old age.
And finally, I am not sure that a society where increasing numbers of people are living alone is at all ideal. Living with other people rubs the corners off you; it encourages tolerance and empathy. And more children means fewer single-person households. Don't get me wrong: I fully support the individual choice to live alone. But I am not sure that I want governmental policies that encourage it.
So we'll keep our parental benefits, thank you. But meanwhile we can help ease the tension. For their part, the child-free have to speak up and ensure they too can take advantage of policies that promote work/life balance. I think it is unfair that Adam should have to give up his holiday repeatedly, but nothing will change until he decides that his holiday is more important than the sales pitch and he demands that his partner help out.
Working parents can be sensitive to non-parents' desire to have a life, too. As managers, we can try to ensure that flexibly designed roles are do-able and not merely cobbled together in order to retain key individuals, in such a way that they effectively rely on others picking up the slack.
And government can promote policies that help families of all shapes and sizes, such as being able to switch one's personal tax allowance to one's partner.
A hefty agenda. But with increased potential benefits alongside increasing numbers of people choosing not to have children, this issue is going to run and run.