Insecure, Stressed and Time Poor? A European Perspective on Work-Life Balance in the Digital Age
by Eoin Drea (Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies)
The advent of the internet and mobile technology has created a multitude of new possibilities for EU citizens and businesses. Most aspects of modern life – parental duties, work, travel, education, retail and communication to name but a few – are being transformed by this digital age of development. With the increased inter-connectedness of the global economy, labour markets and societies are evolving faster than would have been deemed possible, even a decade ago. Allied to the lingering impacts of the recent economic crises in Europe these trends have transformed significant elements of the traditional centre-right electorate into an increasingly anxious and insecure middle class. An electorate who are uncertain that they will match the social mobility and standard of living of preceding generations. This paper traces the evolution of the work-life balance issue in Europe and identifies how the recent Work-Life Balance Proposal from the European Commission marks a first step in attempting to build a meaningful work-life balance policy for Europe.
Developing a Social Pillar in Europe
Within the centre-right in Europe there is a clear understanding of the challenges facing working families today. Issues such as employment insecurity, generational inequality, stalled social mobility, gender inequality and childcare are defining the day-to-day experiences of millions of Europeans.[i] Although, specific national issues will always be relevant, recent research is clear in identifying the common threads underpinning increasing middle class dissatisfaction.[ii]
As a result, in April 2017 the European Commission presented the European Pillar for Social Rights (EPSR).[iii] The Pillar sets out 20 key principles and rights to support fair and well-functioning labour markets and welfare systems. It is accompanied by a number of concrete legislative and non-legislative initiatives. It was presented both as a Commission Recommendation and as a proposal for a joint proclamation by the Parliament, the Council and the Commission.
The European approach to social rights is predicated on the belief that “economic policy is social policy. And social policy is economic policy. You cannot disentangle the two - and we need action on both at the same time”.[iv] With the dual objective of increasing productivity and social progress, the EPSR principles are structured around three categories: equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion. The EPSR also explicitly acknowledges that its establishment does not affect the rights of Member States to set the fundamental characteristics of their social security or public finance models.
Within the category of fair working conditions are contained a suite of six principles. These principles relate to a secure and adaptable employment, wages, employment conditions and dismissals, social dialogue, workplace safety/data protection and work-life balance. These principles seek to ensure that the new realities of working for millions of Europeans – largely underpinned by how technology is transforming the economy – does not result in a dilution of rights or protections. It is underpinned by the role of social dialogue through which workers are consulted on the design and implementation of relevant policies.
More Money, More Stress? Why Work-Life Balance Matters
Within the EPSR, the principle on work-life balance states that “parents and people with caring responsibilities have the right to suitable leave, flexible working arrangements and access to care services. Women and men shall have equal access to special leaves of absence in order to fulfil their caring responsibilities and be encouraged to use them in a balanced way”. This principle reflects the reality of family life in the EU today where it is often necessary to have two earners to achieve at least a middle class income. This ‘dual income’ model, in turn, can lead to stress in combining paid work, education of children and other family duties without being forced to access public welfare.
Yet, it is important when discussing the issue of work-life balance to recognise that this is not wholly an income related issue. While issues of taxation (both direct and indirect), social security contributions and rising prices are of direct relevance they do not fully explain the increasing anxiety of middle class families. Although family income is a key determinant of social class, the data on perceived income inequality is decidedly mixed. Rather, the issue of work-life balance is underpinned by the increasing speed and demands of modern life. This manifests itself in how the responsibilities of work and family are coming under stress in a dual income model that is increasingly subject to a society driven by technology and flexibility. Unfortunately, the stress of modern life (and the demands of modern employment) can also manifest itself in a whole array of psychological and physical conditions including, but not limited to mental exhaustion and burnout.
The work-life balance debate also illustrates how this issue crosses traditional economic, social and political boundaries. This is not a case of seeking to expand social spending or extend the reach of state influence in the economy. Rather, this issue highlights that as society has changed rapidly over the past decade, it is now necessary to update our long standing social market economy model to reflect modern working trends. This is not about extending the reach of Brussels into policies which are the preserve of national capitals. This is a societal challenge which requires a multi-faceted response at local, regional, national and European level. As noted, this issue is both an economic and social problem. At its core lies a mismatch between the traditional position of women in society and modern life in which we must embed our centre-right values. Values which emphasise personal choice and responsibility, equality and mutual respect.
In many respects, the emergence of this issue as a key element of the EPSR reflects the awareness that it now necessary to bring forward specific proposals to help bridge the gap between the rhetoric of a flexible, technologically driven European economy and the day-to-day realities facing millions of European families. In this context, a particular responsibility falls on centre-right political parties to offer a coherent work-life balance agenda given our long standing commitment to the social market economy and to advancing the agenda for a more digital and flexible Europe. It is also incumbent upon centre-right political forces to recognise that the work-life balance debate is central to ensuring a higher level of gender equality.
Proposal on Work-life Balance for Parents and Carers: Putting Equality at its Core
To specifically tackle the issue of work-life balance, in April 2017 the European Commission published a Proposal for a Directive on Work-Life Balance for Parents and Carers.[v] In reality, this proposal seeks to address a key characteristic underpinning the work-life balance issue, namely the under-representation of women in employment. It also seeks to help support their career progression by aiding the management of work and family duties. The two stated objectives of this proposal are:
- To improve access to work-life balance arrangements (such as parental leave and flexible working arrangements); and
- To increase take-up of family related leaves and working arrangements by men.
By proposing to enhance the enforcement of current legislation relating to maternity leave, advocating a ten working day paternity leave entitlement, a four-month parental leave, five-day carers leave and the right to request flexible working arrangements, the Commission is recognising both the societal reality and the economic necessity of achieving greater flexibility in the work place.
The economic necessity of achieving greater gender equality in the labour market is well established. Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has described women as “the most underutilised economic asset in our economies”.[vi] In the United States, more than 25% of mothers leave the workforce entirely for child or family care.[vii] In Europe, the employment rate of women with one child under six years of age is, on average, 9% less than women without young children. This, in turn, feeds into a cycle of less earnings and less retirement savings for many women compared to men.
Considered in the context of Europe’s declining birth rate and aging population, the ability to develop systems that retain women in the workforce, irrespective of their family situation, is a key imperative for European policy makers. Of course, this is a complex and multi-faceted issue which requires more policy actions than simply increasing parental leave. What is required is a detailed examination of the structural factors impeding equality in the labour market. In this context, the recent Directive is very important is drawing attention to two underlying factors which impact significantly on the delicate balancing act facing many families when it comes to work and care duties. These factors are (1) the role of childcare and (2) gender inequalities in the labour market.
Childcare as a Driver of Social Mobility, Gender Equality and Economic Growth
The work-life balance proposal is intertwined with the area of early childhood education and care (ECEC) in offering parents the choice of when, if and at what level to return to work given family care commitments. Again, it should be emphasised that the role of EU policy is not to set mandatory pan-European demands of the social security systems of Member States. Rather the objective is to facilitate the development of the EU as a society (and economy) where hard working families have the required options to make childcare decisions based on their personal preference.
Recent research confirms clearly that female workforce participation is directly related to the availability of childcare.[viii] Research has also identified the significant economic returns that investments in ECEC can deliver in the long run, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.[ix] The experiences of different European states also illustrates that sustained public investment in ECEC is vital in developing systems which are flexible, affordable and of high quality.
At this point, it is important to understand the realities of the choices facing policymakers in developing comprehensive ECEC systems. Here three key points are relevant. First, although there is almost universal acceptance about the right of children to education, there is much more ambivalence about childcare. Childcare is often seen as a service that families must obtain in order to work, and this service must be paid for by those families who benefit from it. Second is the inter-related issue of how national policies trajectories have developed over time and are a reflection of wider societal values. Third is the topic of public investment and the discussion about whether any expansion of childcare facilities should be driven by the public or private sector, in a formal or informal setting.
With regard to the role of the private sector in providing integrated ECEC systems, it should be noted that the latest research highlights that while the private sector is generally effective in expanding childcare supply rapidly, there are serious concerns regarding accountability, autonomy and ability to provide care in more underprivileged areas. This is particularly relevant in the states with the largest private sector involvement – Ireland, UK and the Netherlands. Interestingly, these systems also exhibit some of the most expensive childcare costs in the EU. However, the research also highlights that it is possible to manage a mixed public-private system which is characterised by affordability, availability and high quality (e.g. Norway). Several former Communist EU Member States, such as Bulgaria, also provide a useful example of how state involvement can lead to positive outcomes in terms of confronting labour market inequalities.
The availability of affordable, flexible and high quality childcare must not become a battleground for largely irrelevant ideological debates, but rather it must become an essential element of the policy response to modern societal preferences.
In reality, modern societies are overwhelmingly characterised by the dual-earner family model, or by working single parents. However, this trend is not only driven by the increasing demands of the digital economy. It is also underpinned by the rightful expectation of women that they will have the choice to continue to develop their careers regardless of whether or not they decide to start a family. In a sense, continuing debates about historic norms or political ideologies miss the larger societal issue facing millions of families in the EU today. Namely, that the availability of increased childcare options is a perquisite to allow families fulfil their full familial and economic potential in contemporary society. This absence of this personal choice is reducing social mobility, hindering greater gender equality and ultimately retarding economic growth.
It is impossible to consider fully the issues of work-life balance and childcare without also examining the inter-related topic of gender inequality, with specific reference to the problem in today’s labour market. The absence of gender equality in the day-to-day life of millions of working women is a contributory source of familial stress and a component in the wider work-life balance debate. In economic terms, a societal model based on a dual-earner or single parent working is particularly impacted by a labour market characterised by lower comparable earnings for many women. However, while important work is being undertaken regarding the two most obvious characteristics of this issue – the disparity in earnings (gender pay gap) and representation (debate around gender quotas) – much more work is needed on the underlying issues facilitating such levels of inequality in the first place.
It is a complex issue which extends significantly beyond media-friendly issues such as the gender pay gap. It includes issues such as childcare, education, taxation policy and wider social issues about the role and expectations of women in society and the workforce. Notwithstanding the fact that young women tend to obtain more years of schooling and outperform young men in education in many EU Member States, women still dominate in many poorly paid sectors of the economy, often on a part-time basis with limited social security benefits. This has follow-on effects in areas such as female representation in higher management, in both the private and public sectors.
As key proponents of individual choice and personal responsibility, the centre-right (at a European level) requires policies in these areas which recognises the day-to-day realities of working in the 21st century. While slogans like ‘flexibility’ and the ‘digital economy’ are useful tools for party political platform development, they do little to close the gap between the rhetoric of political discourse and the reality of working life. This is particularly relevant for highly educated women who often remain underpaid and underpromoted relative to their male counterparts.
In the context of the issues highlighted in this paper, the Work-Life Balance Proposal from the European Commission marks only the first step in attempting to realign the reality of working life with wider societal changes currently taking place. By specifically tackling the impediments to accessing work-life balance arrangements (such as family related leaves and flexible working) the EU is seeking to put in place a framework for parents and carers that allows greater personal choice. In supporting the take-up of these arrangements for men, the EU is recognising that a rebalancing of the distribution of care within households is required in order to better reflect the needs of families today. In effect, the gap between political rhetoric and daily life must be narrowed.
In a broader European context, the Work-Life Balance Proposal is a key element of the broader focus on Europe’s Social Pillar which seeks to place society – and its health – at the centre of European economic policy in the years ahead. Although a positive start, significantly more work is required in moving Europe from a ‘maternity leave’ to a ‘paternity leave’ society in which the daily stresses of family life are more evenly balanced between men and women. This paper highlights two specific issues – childcare and gender equality – which are both vital for developing a sustainable and meaningful work-life balance policy in Europe in the years ahead.
While acknowledging and supporting the primacy of national competencies in social policy, the EU will continue to challenge Member States to provide increased choice for families when it comes to work and care arrangements. Economically and socially the imperatives are clear. For Europe, the struggle for real equality continues.
[i] Eoin Drea, The Middle Class INFOCUS: Priorities for the 2019 Elections and Beyond, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Brussels, 2018.
[ii] Arjen Siegmann and Matthias Schafer (eds.), No Robots: The Position of Middle Class Households in Nine European Countries, CDA Wetenschappelijk Instituut, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, The Hague, 2017.
[iii] European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Establishing a European Pillar of Social Rights, Com (2017) 250 final, Brussels.
[iv] Commissioner Thyssen, Speech on the European Pillar of Social Rights, Plenary Debate of the Economic and Social Committee, Brussels, 25 January 2017.
[v] European Commission, Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council, On Work Life Balance for Parents and Carers and Repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU, Com (2017) 253 final, Brussels.
[vi] Angel Gurria, The Global Economy: Strengthening Growth and Job Creation, Remarks at G20 Leaders’ Summit, Brisbane, 15-16 November 2014.
[vii] Beth Ann Bovino and Jason Gold, The Key to Unlocking U.S. GDP Growth: Women, S&P Global Insights, New York, 2017.
[viii] Professor Helen Penn, Childcare as a Tool to Increase Social Mobility, Gender Equality and Economic Growth, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Brussels, 2018 – Forthcoming.
[ix] Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015.