In the last quarter of the twentieth century, most European welfare states have witnessed dramatic changes, not only in their labour market structures, but also within the family unit. Since the 1980s, the traditional male breadwinner family model has gradually been losing some of its social prevalence. This model consists of a heterosexual married couple with children living under the same roof, where the husband is associated with uninterrupted full-time employment from graduation until retirement, while the wife dedicates her life to homemaking. Increasingly, the male breadwinner family model is being replaced with formerly marginalised family models such as the adult earner family model or the one-and-a-half earner family model. This has resulted in significant changes in the life paths of many women. While a typical post-war woman was expected to marry in her early twenties and spend the rest of her life acting as a “domestic servant” (Esping-Andersen, 2009:27), a post-industrialist European woman is expected to be gainfully employed and contribute to the family budget. Although this change has been seen as a great step in furthering gender equality (as women would be freed from dependency on their fathers or male breadwinner partners), it has also exacerbated existing social risks and inequalities or even created new ones. Among the many drawbacks this change has elicited, the literature identifies the decrease in fertility rates, women’s double burden of family and job responsibilities, and the absence of mothers from their children’s lives to be the most important. As these problems have appeared in almost all EU member states, formerly-neglected work and family life reconciliation (WFLR) policies have become one of the most pressing policy and political subjects across Europe, especially in the European Union (EU) agenda. These policies align with the main aim of social policy-making, which is to support human well-being and social equality within societies (Taylor-Gooby, 1996).
During the post-industrial era, the EU adopted a new policy paradigm centred on the idea of economic growth through full employment among all citizens, including those with family responsibilities. This new policy paradigm highlighted the importance of WFLR policies, as they kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, WFLR measures allow women to be more active in the labour market without giving up their motherhood roles, preventing both falling fertility rates and long-term labour scarcity. At the same time, by transferring women’s disproportionate domestic workload either to the state or at least to the market, these policies are also expected to alleviate the unequal division of labour within families. As such, the EU has been putting exceptional effort into WFLR policy-making since the mid-1990s. It would not be unjustified to argue that WFLR policies are no longer merely a supplementary policy field but now an inseparable part of the EU social policy model, as they have increasingly begun to appear in EU policy, in the form of both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ laws. That is, while some are legally-binding initiatives (including treaties, directives, and the European Court of Justice’s rules that must be transposed by Member States into their national legislative frameworks), others, such as guidelines, roadmaps and recommendations, are quasi-legal instruments with no legally-binding forces.
The decade between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s might be considered the ‘golden age’ of WFLR policies. Parental leave schemes, childcare provisions, and working time policies have received a tremendous amount of attention from the EU. Yet, during the second half of the 2000s, the interplay of several factors has contributed to the side-lining of WFLR policies. These included the 2008 Euro crisis, the 2009 European debt crisis, and the increased number of conservative rightist MEPs in favour of austerity within the European Parliament. As a result, WFLR policies lost the political enthusiasm that they had in the previous decade and were therefore disrupted.
The social partners and European social institutions—specifically COFACE and the European Women’s Lobby—kept reminding the EU that it would be impossible to reach the Europe 2020 targets in the absence of comprehensive reconciliation measures. In response to their persistence, the EU has acknowledged the importance of WFLR policies in the aim of reaching the 2020 targets; hence, WFLR policies have reappeared on the EU’s policy-making agenda. Moreover, in order to avoid any potential backlash regarding WFLR policies, the European social institutions deemed the year 2014 the ‘Year of Reconciling Work and Family Life in Europe.’ COFACE and the European Women’s Lobby, in particular, have spent much of their time lobbying and advocating EU representatives for a comprehensive Work-Life Balance Directive. Specifically, they asked EU representatives to expand WFLR measures and combine disperse measures under one hard law and legally-binding directive. This long-awaited demand was finally realized on the 26th of April in 2017, when the European Commission released the European Pillar of Social Rights, in the form of recommendations listing key principles for driving future EU social policy agenda. One of these principles focused on the reconciliation of work and family life and subsumed various legislative and non-legislative measures. After almost two years of trilogies, the Council of the EU and the European Parliament reached an agreement on the 24th of January 2019. This agreement approved the Work-Life Balance, which provides ten days of paternity leave, four months of parental leave for each parent, five days of carers leave, and the right to request flexible working arrangements.
Although EU competence concerning WFLR was relatively limited for a very long time, the introduction of the Work-Life Balance Directive has pushed both EU member and candidate states to transpose EU WFLR policies into their domestic legislative frameworks, as WFLR is now – (after a 30-year battle) – a legally- binding hard-law. The implementation of this directive at the national level is expected to tackle traditional and old-fashioned gender roles (where women are associated with home making and men with bread winning), alleviate child poverty, end discrimination against women, and positively impact the well-being of all workers.
Esping-Andersen, G. (2009). Incomplete revolution: Adapting welfare states to women’s new
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Taylor-Gooby, P. (1996). Eurosclerosis in European welfare states: regime theory and the
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 http://www.coface-eu.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/COFACE_WLBAssessment-.pdf (last visited on 19.02.2020)