by Agnes Uhereczky, COFACE Director
The thing about social change is that most of the time it happens slowly, gradually, away from the limelight. Media usually laps up dramatic change, like the Fall of the Berlin Wall or 1 billion users on Facebook. Gradual social change usually is only visible, when there is a tipping point, like the one we are experiencing with the refugee situation in Europe and globally.
Another social change is going on however, and this is only partly mediatised. The change in family forms, and how families live their lives, and in parallel the changing world of work. The majority of countries have left behind the single male-breadwinner model, and in most families both parents are working.
These changes mean that a number of structures and policies we have in place now are becoming redundant, outdated or even hindering progress. And as the policies and legislation are not keeping up with what is happening in the real world, they can be used to the benefit of business and to the detriment of workers.
This Blog entry aims to draw attention to some of these important changes, and to make the link with the Roadmap of the European Commission, published in August 2015 to address the challenges of work-life balance, faced by working families.
The Roadmap follows the Press statement of Commissioner Thyssen on the 17th July, after the informal EPSCO Council meeting. Commissioner Thyssen also stressed the importance of better policies and regulation in favour of a better reconciliation of work and family and private life and care.
Both the press-statement and the Commission Roadmap are framing the issue of work-life balance in women’s participation on the labour market. Even in our European Reconciliation Package we point to the risks of presenting the matter purely as a “mommy-issue”. There are a variety of important undercurrents, which are fundamentally transforming the way we work and the way we live and consume, and if the European Commission is aiming for a really progressive proposal that will stand the test of time, it needs to look beyond the replacement of the scrapped Maternity Leave Directive and address these shifting tectonic plates.
What is at the root of all this? Europe is grappling with a huge productivity crisis and old structures are not serving the quest for perpetual growth anyomore. Think of it as a balloon being filled with water, but eventually the balloon is developing some cracks, which start leaking and become holes where water is already seeping through, and eventually, the balloon will burst.
The labour to productivity ratio is worsening. Parts of the labour intensive work has been outsourced to China or Bangladesh, with the arrival of robots, artificial intelligence and digital tools, other low-intensity work is also disappearing. An estimated 40% of current jobs (mainly low-skilled) are forecast to disappear by 2020. This will also concern translators, interpreters, doctors, accountants. Anything that is a repetitive task, smart machines will overtake. What will remain for us humans are the difficult parts of any job, the one that requires us to be human and negotiate, navigate complex information flows, synthetise information and find innovative solutions.
So how will we squeeze more productivity out of our ageing workforce? On the one hand there are huge barriers to innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe, and thus hampering the new job-creation mechanisms. And many skilled women, who have completed tertiary education are not in the workforce. So they need to be brought back through Maternity leave legislation and childcare provision.
Then there is the issue of flexible work. We wholeheartedly support the introduction of flexible time and place for work – again, this can only happen for the highly skilled, who are participating in the global race for talent.
I read somewhere that as the young generation is very aware, that they won’t live as well as their parents’ generation, they are looking for maximising their quality of life in a different way. And this means that they are looking for jobs, where they can have the flexibility to take care of their families, to have hobbies and to participate actively in their communities.
Flexible work can be interpreted in a variety of ways, yet very recent data is now emerging which shows, that employers are using flexibility to keep down pay and also restrict working hours, especially in the retail and service and even healthcare sectors. What we can see from recent data, is that employers are hiring from the already-employed segment, not from the unemployed. It means, that many people are multiplying part-time jobs to make ends meet. These data point to tightness in the labour market, and is bad news for the long-term unemployed. There is on the one end of the spectrum a great level of underwork (unemployed or bad quality part-time work), and on the other end of the spectrum overwork.
So the answer to both work-life balance and the rising unemployment may lie in a much better distribution of work.
Currently there is a clash of two ideologies, on the one hand thriving for full-employment, getting everybody into work, and on the other, fighting burnout, injuries, health implications of overwork, as well as advocating for time for family life, leisure, and wanting to be the good citizens we are: civic engagement and volunteering.
Work defines us and we are defined by work. But instead we should be defined by our whole lives. We need to challenge the very strict and very gendered professional norms that put pressure on both sexes equally. If the European Commission aims (very rightly) at enhancing the take up of paternity and parental leaves by fathers, then we need to look at the pressures on men at work to perform and be constantly ON, and also look at the gender segregation of the labour market, which in parts is responsible for the still pervasive gender pay-gap.
There is the culture of business and a very competitive environment. Consumerism has also created powerful influential forces in favour of long working hours. In addition to long working hours, often they are spent under very poor working conditions. There is a growing number of studies showing the human costs of longer working hours. These include lower physical and mental health. Working long hours can add to the risk of having a stroke, coronary heart disease and developing type 2 diabetes.
We need to challenge the counter-intuitive argument that longer working hours lead to higher productivity. This is not true, because we are speaking about humans (still) and not robots. Persistent overwork has serious impact on health and implication on productivity, due to absenteeism, high turnover rates (recruitment and training costs) and low employee engagement.
We congratulate the European Commission for the new initiative, which will unfold in 2016, and we are pledging our support with our knowledge, our network and our eagerness in helping Europe rethink the way we want to live, work and consume.