With the Hungarian Presidency’s “Europe for Families, Families for Europe: Population issues and policies awareness week” (28 March – 3 April 2011), European family policy came under the spotlight as never before. “Only five years ago this would not have been possible”, noted William Lay of the Confederation of Family Organisations in the EU (COFACE). “It would not have been politically correct.”
At a press conference announcing the event – attended also by ministers’ children and grandchildren – Hungarian Minister for EU Affairs Enikő Győri outlined the Presidency’s aim to establish a tradition of focusing on families and family policy. This was launched in earnest with the first event of the week, held on 28-29 March in Budapest, “The Hungarian Presidency conference on demographic change: the impact of work and family reconciliation on demographic dynamics”.
For Hungary, one of seven Member States facing population decline, the topic is particularly relevant. But the issue also affects the continent as whole. From 2015, deaths will outnumber births and migration will be the only population growth factor, said Edit Bauer, Member of the European Parliament, at the opening conference. The proportion of elderly people is increasing as a share of total population, with all the social and political implications that brings. The average age of the working population, as Robert Anderson of Eurofound pointed out, is increasing by about one year every five years – and is set to continue.
Speakers representing the Spanish, Belgian and Hungarian governments reiterated the commitment of the EU presidency “trio” to family policies. Progress had been made in Spain, for instance in women’s employment and in paternity leave, said Isabel María Martínez Lozano, General Secretary for Social Policy and Consumer Affairs, but to continue, “strong political momentum” is needed. This is also relevant for EU targets on growth, since sustainability “should be understood in the broadest sense – sustainability of persons and of social structures.” Tamás Szűcs of the EC Representation in Hungary welcomed a slight increase in the average number of children in recent years. But with demographic challenges all the more pressing given the economic crisis, the EC “fully shares the concerns of the Hungarian presidency”.
Conference participants, who included representatives of Member States, EU institutions and NGOs as well as researchers, reflected on the changed nature of “family”, as well as its shifting context. With the rise of the “sandwich” generation – one caring for both children and parents – and new challenges related to increased mobility, a transversal approach to families across all policy areas is needed, argued Melchior Wathelet, Belgian Secretary of State for Family Policy.
But if circumstances have changed, the importance of the family unit remains. Raúl Sánchez from the European Large Families Confederation argued for recognition of the family as a sort of NGO in itself which allows savings in social expenditure: investment in families is an investment in the future and in the welfare system. Dr. Mária Kopp from the Hungarian Round Table on Demographic Issues presented a strong case for the link between family and health. For example, a 2007 study revealed that the mortality rate among single men aged 30-64 in Finland was 3.24 times higher than among married men. Mortality rates were similarly found to be lower among those with children. Overall, Dr. Kopp has found an even stronger impact on health from family status than from smoking or obesity.
It was clearly agreed that public policy had a role to play. Defining family policy, however, should not be too simplistic. It is not just about more births, many participants said, but about freedom of choice – ensuring those who want to have children can do so, when and in the amount they wish. A “fertility gap” – the difference between desired and actual number of children – is apparent across all European countries. However, as Anne Gauthier from the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute showed, the gap is probably exaggerated: stated desires change over time, and respondents may give what they feel to be the socially acceptable answer.
Nor is family policy simply about childbirth, as Willem Adema from the OECD said: but “also about reducing family poverty, about child development, and about gender equality”. While the focus is often on women, issues such as work-family balance are not solely a women’s issue, argued Jana Jamborová of New Women for Europe, meaning “solutions that focus exclusively on women will always be incomplete and lack overall effectiveness”. Looking beyond responsibilities towards children is also important, since by 2050, demand for care for old people is expected to be higher than for children. This is all the more serious as Eurofound surveys report that a higher proportion of people experience work-life strains caring for the elderly or disabled than those caring for children.
Family policy is also about resources, services and time, said Mr Lay of COFACE: in other words, meeting the needs of families. This could mean housing, education or better work arrangements, for instance. According to Eurofound, people’s ability to reconcile work with family and other commitments varies throughout Europe – while 58% were able to do so “very well” in Denmark, just 14% answered similarly in Lithuania.
But we should also look beyond workplace and improve support services provided at colleges and universities, argued Dr. Kopp, allowing women who want to have children in their 20s – the optimum age – to do so. While childcare is an effective tool in tackling child poverty and can also affect birthrates positively, quality of the care provided (curriculum, number of staff, staff qualifications, etc.) is also a factor. While the effect of family policies on fertility is not fully understood, policies do affect the overall context in which families live, said Ms Gauthier, who also stressed that policies needed to be consistent over time and form part of a whole package of measures.
Providing services is only one side of the issue, though; real change will require “reorienting the culture” as Ms. Jamborová put it. This means tackling discrimination, for example threats or dismissal of highly educated women choosing to have children: “We don’t speak enough about this type of discrimination… It’s a practice that has to be finished”, argued Dr. Kopp, who pointed out that the highest fertility gap in Hungary was found among educated women. Staffan Nilsson, President of the European Economic and Social Committee, suggested the emphasis should not simply be on ensuring men take more responsibility at home but also to ensure young men are aware of this “unique opportunity to come closer to their children… to raise good children for a good society.” Childbirth, he said, should not be seen as a career break, “but as part of the career”.
Raising awareness of family-related issues is one area in which European coordination can play a role. Exchanging best practices, the subject of one panel discussion during the conference, is another: participants heard about company good practices in supporting employees also working as carers and about family centres in Sweden, among others. The social partners “could play an important role” in ultimately implementing family-friendly policies, said Mr Nilsson. The proposal by COFACE to name 2014 a European Year of Families, gaining increasing support, is one example of this.
The “Europe for Families, Families for Europe” awareness week involves several events including an informal meeting of EU Ministers for demography and family affairs. The week will close with a large public festival celebrating families in Europe.
Conference programme and presentations will be published here.