This European Alliance for the Family stakeholder seminar looked at big subject areas such as the diversity and the dynamics of families in the European Union, the delay in family formation due to the impact of the crisis and the ambivalent situation of youth and how family policy in the EU is coping with these issues.
The seminar, which was hosted by the European Commission in Brussels on 12 October 2011, brought together a wide range of representatives, including from government departments, NGOs, the European Commission and academics.
It was pointed out to participants that it is up to EU member states to decide on their own national family policies but that there is some common development and countries can learn from each other's experiences.
The seminar began with a speech by Michal Boni, minister and chief counsellor to the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. He stressed the need to balance family and work life, to pay special attention to the young and to discuss family policy and demographic problems. Supporting families is for long-term gains, a point echoed by Dimiter Philipov from the Vienna Institute of Demography, Cecile Greboval, Secretary General of the European Women's Lobby and William Lay, Director of COFACE (the Confederation of Family Organisations in the EU). Lay pointed to the continuity in family policy in France through government changes and the ups and down of the economy so that "[economic] crisis or no crisis, there is ongoing family support". Lay admitted that "social and family budgets are under pressure because of the crisis" but said that "social budgets must be kept at a certain level" as "social protection is a fundamental element of family policy".
Tomas Sobotka from the Vienna Institute of Demography outlined some of the preconditions for people deciding to start family (e.g. completed education, housing, stable employment and partner, readiness) and observed that the current economic uncertainty is affecting all of these factors. His point was validated by Olivier Thevenon, researcher of the OECD who showed that despite the large cross-national differences, the risk of child poverty is strongly related to the working status of the parents. Sobotka suggested that budget cuts and potential cuts in social spending may affect people's decisions on whether or not to start a family. "If people struggle to find housing, they might postpone leaving the parents' home and family formation," said Clara Mulder from GroningenUniversity. She argued that the favourable housing market for family formation are accessible home ownership credit or a well-developed the rental sector. "Policy could either support an affordable rental sector or support mortgage markets via mortgage guarantees," she said.
A key point made by Jolante Reingarde from the European Institute for Gender Equality was that "the decision to freeze or cut child benefits by many countries is leading to the transfer of unpaid care work back to women". The need for equal sharing of care duties between men and women was raised by a number of speakers. The data clearly shows that women do more childcare, housework and elderly care than men and that there is growing awareness about this unfair division of tasks or 'gender gap'. Employed mothers, especially those aged 35-49, take on a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities, said Irena Kotowska, a Professor at Warsaw University.
Professor Kotowska said that there was a shift in society from the male breadwinner model (i.e. the man as the main earner and the woman staying at home) towards a dual earner/dual carer model. She said that this is contributing to the trend towards shrinking family care resources. Moreover, demand for care is growing given that people are living longer. Pearl Dykstra, professor of Sociology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam questioned the validity of popular beliefs on intergenerational families showing that older family members constitute more help than a burden, while public transfers do not crowd family transfers out, rather supplement them. The overall conclusion was that there is a need to develop formal care to support the family and not to replace the family as a care provider and that policy should be targeted at the dual earner/dual carer family.
In the context of the dual earner/dual carer model, Stefan Fuchs, a researcher at the German Institute for Demography, General Welfare and Family, noted an increase in part-time work, especially from mothers, but also from both parents. "The consequences of this, such as if one needs full or part-time childcare, are part of discussions," he said. He also noted that the social security provisions of part-time work are an important part of the debate. He added that "policies need to be based on the plurality of family forms and employment patterns. In a modern society, there is no one size fits all model for everyone. ".
Michal BONI, Chief counsellor to the Polish Prime Minister
Jolante REINGARDE, European Institute for Gender Equality
Olivier THEVENON, OECD
Pearl DYKSTRA, Erasmus University of Rotterdam
Tomas SOBOTKA, Vienna Institute of Demography
Dimiter PHILIPOV, Vienna Institute of Demography
Cécile Gréboval, European Women's Lobby
Juho Härkönen, Stockholm University
Irena KOTOWSKA, Warsaw University
Olaf KAPELLA, Austrian Institute for Family Studies
Stefan FUCHS, German Institute for Demography