European families in transition

Nowadays the European society is in the process of family transition. Started with the feminist mainstream, it was followed by deep social changes, reflected in changes within family relations. Gender equality, viewed as a positive social trend has found its support in reconciliation policies. 

However, this process is still not finished and there is a place for further development. In this paper author is going to raise questions of changing of family structures and changes of relations within families, to discuss outcomes of these changes for workers, employers, European states and the EU as a whole.

Aim of this paper is to discuss EU reconciliation strategies from a perspective of current demographic situation and social trends. To discuss the problem of work-life balance in European society and specific problems those are not regulated by reconciliation strategies.
Theoretical background
Issue of family transition and contemporary social policies, supporting gender equality are under research of numerous authors, who, having a wide aspect of questions to discover more or less touch issues of our interest. Thus Lewis J. in her article “Work family reconciliation, equal opportunities and social policies: the interpretation of policy trajectories at the EU level and the meaning of gender equality” mostly concentrates her attention on development and modification of policies and how their framing was constructed. She pays attention more to policies itself than the actors. While Lewis S., Gambles R. and Rapoport R. pay attention to work-life balance (WLB), focusing on critical analysis of three main (from their point of view) components of WLB concept – gender neutrality, personal choice and cultural neutrality.
Margarita Leon in her work “Gender Equality and the European Employment Strategy: The Work/Family Balance Debate” makes a research of gender equality issues embedded into the European Employment Strategy (EES) (that mostly touches issues of childcare and parental leave as instruments of greater involvement of women into labour market). She stresses that attention, paid to childcare provisions and parental leave regulations are not equally addressed by the EES, with less priority to parental leave.
Lane L. in her work “Conceptualizing Work-Life Balance in the Swedish Life Puzzle Debate – Is it just about time?” questions whether it is possible to balance work-family-life and solve this “puzzle”. The author states that the question of time is central but not the main one. One of the main challenges for the contemporary employers is to provide people with good work environment allowing them to enjoy their job and be productive and socially helpful and to let them enjoy their family and free time life.
Reconciliation policy, being an important EU policy discourse since the 1990s has itself presented the gender equality approach, making now no accent on women rights and aiming to provide equal treatment for both men and women in questions of harmonization of work and private life. In a broader sense, reconciliation strategies are everything EU does to harmonise work and private life of people. Reconciliation strategies, being firstly associated with policies of equal opportunities  developed later to a much more wider instruments of social harmonization, which regulated not only the issues of work/family harmonization for male and female workers, but also meant care about children and elderly people. As Leon M. states: “the European Pact for Gender Equality (2006b), underlines the importance of addressing the work/family conflict in a variety of ways. These include increasing and improving care provision for the elderly and children, and articulating flexible working arrangements for both male and female workers.” (Leon 2009, p.7). Thus, reconciliation policies have reflected the changing family structure and contemporary demographic trends, such as population aging. The reconciliation policies became more broad and developed with transition of social trends.
 In the early 1990-s work/family reconciliation policies were more considered through the prism of achievement of equal opportunities (mostly were meant equal opportunities at labour market) and necessarily involved changes in the behaviour of men. (Lewis, J. 2007, p.426). These policies reflected social shifts towards gender equality.
In the late 1990s reconciliation policies were regulated both by ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ law, like creation of childcare places (soft law) and like a parental leave, which was regulated by a directive (Council 1996 Directive) that made a leave non-transferable (men could not transfer it to women). These reconciliation policies were now harmonizing and touching family life, reflecting the changes in family and shifting of roles of men and women within the family. Both parents were now bread-winners as well as those who had to take care of children.
And finally, in 2000s, the reconciliation policies touched questions of population aging, as it became more obvious the necessity to pay attention to this tendency. Therefore the European Pact for Gender Equality (2006b) includes increasing and improving care provision for the elderly and children (Leon 2009, p.7). As well as articulating flexible working arrangements for both male and female workers (Leon 2009, p.7), paying attention to the importance of work-life balance (WLB) for both men and women.
As it is stated by Lewis S.: “WLB appears to capture a widely felt need to prevent paid work from invading too much into people’s lives” (Lewis 2007, p.361). And really, perhaps reducing of working hours to 8/day was a first step towards work-life harmonization. The EU has approved several policies to regulate the WLB, where the perfect outcome will be “to challenge organizations to create workplaces that combine employees’ demands for good working environments, their desire to be good parents and productive citizens of their communities with organisational goals of efficiency and sustainability.” (Lane 2011, p.14). However, the main steps and achievements of reconciliation policies is an improvement of childcare services and parental leave, given equally to fathers and mothers. These are regulations, influencing the life of family which I would name “external”, a part of family life, that can be regulated externally. However, the EU can not regulate the ‘internal’ life of family and its inner rules. No Directive can regulate who is cooking today or who is cleaning or who is taking care of household. This is inner family balance, which is regulated by norms of a culture, culture of duty division in different nations. So, a personal position in WLB is also influenced by a cultural tradition of work and normal for each culture quantity of hours, devoted to work (here we can compare examples of American and Italian cultures).
Gender equality led to greater involvement of women into the labour market, which was followed by certain implications for society.
1.      Implications for employment.
-          The rise of competition for work places between men and women. Women became as professional as men and with development of gender equality they got an opportunity to take the same positions as men. However this can lead to greater tensions at labour market.
-          The creation of new work places and vacancies. Involvement of women into the labour market has created such thing as ‘part-time jobs’, as well as ‘women’s jobs’, as well as created new services, like childcare services with many workplaces (mostly taken by women).
2.      Implications for society.
-          Changes of family structure and family obligations (discussed above)
-          Demographic changes. Given equal opportunities with men to work, women became also interested in making a career, which in some cases leads to wish to have children later or not to have them at all. Therefore we can see a bigger gap between number of young and old people. Concerning EU reconciliation strategies – the EU directive can regulate the time of parental leave for both parents, but it can not force women to give birth to more children.
3.      Implications for the EU
-          Decreasing number of population (as partly a result of greater involvement of women into a labour market)
-          Demographic gap (as partly a result of families to give birth to children later and to a smaller number of children)
-          Economic development (which is partly a result of inflow of a greater labour force – more women tend to work)
 It is also a question what actually this work-life balance is. Is it a time, equally divided between work and private life? This also can be questioned in relation to cultural traditions. There are cultures in which it is normal to spend more time at work, continuing working at home after the normal working hours, cultures where it is abnormal to leave your working place after the formal working day has ended and cultures with a strong family tradition where it is improper to bring work home or mention work and speak about work in a family circle.  
WLB nowadays is also a question of personal choice. Today, when most European countries tend further development of gender equality, both at work and within the family, it is up to a person, which sphere of its being – work or personal life to prioritize. However, this choice is of course dependent on social tendencies. It was impossible to see a woman, working equally with men as well as men, who have absolutely devoted himself to childcare and household. Can we then say that in that time work-life balance was broken for both sexes, but for men in a direction of work and for women in a direction of family? And if at that time both sexes were obliged to play these social roles, are they today, with equal rights and opportunities, free to choose what to prioritize? In case they are not interested to equally divide their time between work and personal life?
Reconciliation strategies, aimed at harmonization of work and family life have made a considerable change into social structure, at the same time as experiencing continuous development, when reflecting recent social trends and tendencies. However, they are influential in what the author has called ‘external’ part of family life, which is connected with direct interaction with ‘outer space’. The better harmonization of work-life balance is possible (to tha author’s point of view) with inner harmonization of family life, which is connected with division of work obligations within the family. And this change is not quick; it is a more gradual and slow process, which is connected with cultural change and change of traditions within the national states. WLB is also a question of a personal choice, which became possible for both sexes with development of gender.

Author: Kate Kononyuk

Lane, L. (2011) Conceptualizing Work-Life Balance in the Swedish Life Puzzle Debate – Is it just about time? I Hojer, I. & Hoger S. (ed) Familj, vardagsliv och modernitet, pp.83-98
Leon, M. (2009) Gender Equality and the European Employment Strategy: The Work/Family Balance Debate, Social Policy & Society, 8(2) pp. 197-209
Lewis, J. (2006) Work family reconciliation, equal opportunities and social policies: the interpretation of policy trajectories at the EU level and the meaning of gender equality, Journal of European Public Policy, 13(3) pp. 420-37
Lewis, S. Gambles, R., Rapoport (2007) The constrains of a ‘work-life balance’ approach: an international perspective, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 18(3) pp. 360-373

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