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Ideas Factory Europe Launch and End-of-Year Drinks

Ideas Factory celebrated the launch of the new Ideas Factory website, the new Facebook site and the end of the year on Thu 16 Dec. The drinks were coupled with discussion on “Living to work or working to live? Our prospects for work-life balance?”, a summary of which can be read below. 

The Ideas Factory’s last discussion on Ageing Societies (July 2010) left us eager to further explore the implications of Europe’s ageing society for the younger demographic. We face a future where fewer numbers of people of working age will be expected to support the welfare of a larger body of senior citizens. This decline of the working age population comes at a time when, more than ever, European economies need to compete globally for international business and SME’s are struggling to stay afloat. 

  • What therefore are our prospects for maintaining or improving a healthy work-life balance? Is our current model sustainable in a world of competition?
  • Will more be expected of those active in the labour force, to the detriment of much valued leisure time?
  • Could the European system be turned into its advantage, to attract highly skilled workers who are looking for good stable living environment and safety nets?
  • What impacts will the ageing society have on the lives and lifestyles of younger generation? 

The choices that men and women make when seeking to balance their professional activities with their private and family lives have become of utmost importance both on a personal level as well as for the society at large. Pondering about this modern concept of ‘work-life balance’, we come across many considerations to be taken into account by policy-makers.  

Contemporary visions of ‘work’ and ‘life’ and the elusive concept of ‘work-life balance’ 

We have come along way from the agricultural society and industrial revolution characterised by no free time to the current system, enabled by technologies, which allows people to work where and when they want. The distinction between work and life is fuzzy for many and longer working careers mean that people want to have more flexibility in their working hours – but does this model work?

1. The distinction between work and life is fuzzy rather that rigidly separate.   

  • ‘Work’ can refer to a remunerated activity within a structured framework, can be out of need but also out of personal desire to express one’s ideas and talent, to feel useful, give meaning to one’s life or achieve personal satisfaction.
  • ‘Life’, on the other hand, can denote all activities performed outside one’s formal employment, including travel, hobbies, quality time with family and/or friends, sleeping, going to the spa, the psychologist or the gym, but also domestic chores and volunteering. While many would agree that having a life outside work is important and even necessary, some would also find it boring and unproductive.

2. Many would agree that there is no rule on how much of each, work or life, is required for a healthy lifestyle. The right balance is therefore quite subjective but it is worth considering how a vision of work-life balance differs depending on certain factors: (discussions threw up more questions than answers as you can see below)

  • Gender: Are women more likely than men to sacrifice their careers and cut back on their working life in order to raise children and look after the household? Do men have to spend more time in the labour market in order to be able to provide for their families? Do salary discrepancies between men and women shape in different ways the gender paths towards achieving work-life balance? 
  • Age: How does the meaning of the work-life balance change from one’s 20s, to one’s 40s, 50s and beyond? Is this meaning guided simply by the biology of different ages or by specific values/diverging generational mentalities as well? E.g. it now appears that the younger generation is less enthusiastic about taking over or starting their own businesses or about competing for high-level jobs. The reason may be that they value freetime over career possibilities or that the infrastructure doesn’t support that – or both.
  • Occupation: Can certain jobs (e.g. IT or sales related employment/business activities ran from one’s home, etc.) allow for the combination of work and life while others (e.g. oil drilling engineers sent on a platform in the middle of the ocean for months, military personnel, sales/PR people representing large companies around the world, etc.) preclude or negatively impact on family and private life?
  • Cultures/countries: How do cultural or country specific traditions, e.g. siesta, free Sunday, expected age of marriage, Protestant versus Catholic ethic etc. affect the work-life balance from a transnational perspective? E.g. European workers have five weeks of more paid holidays than their counterparts in the USA. The belief that Europeans produce more in the same time provided is unfortunately a myth. There are great differences between European countries, and although some are more productive than others, overall European productivity is decreasing. Countries such as Finland, which tend to parade as the ideal examples of work-life balance in practice, give a warning example, that rights attained will not lead to happiness but to requests for more: a recent study shows that over 40% of the Finnish population would be happy to take a pay-cut if they were given more freetime. And the younger generation is clearly leading the polls. 

3. Contemporary visions of work-life balance impact on our long-term plans.

  • For instance, how much do our professional goals (e.g. career and status), personal life choices (e.g. study longer, not commit to marriage) and aspirations to afford material goods or services affect our prospects to start and enjoy a family, have a social life, stay in good health (stress, high blood pressure), have children, and leave our future generations a worthy heritage?
  • Put differently, is our perception of work-life balance too individualistic and short-sighted nowadays to consider the bigger picture and longer-term implications of our behaviour? Do we stop to think how our actions influence labour market participation, debt levels, fertility rates, political apathy and democracy, etc.?

How should/can policy makers arrive at a solution that meets people’s demand for balance?

 Along with income, work-life balance is considered a determinant of a citizen’s well-being. If we however accept that people have such diverse and subjective understandings of work-life balance, it is not easy to begin to pin down fair and equitable policies that would ensure that everyone can find their desired equilibrium. Nevertheless, the Ideas Factory young thinkers discussed a range of potential and partial policy solutions, listed below. 

  • More burden-sharing in the labour market: policies that balance gender opportunities, such as equal time off for maternity and shared custody, as well as reduced hours for older working people;
  • Family policies that seek to provide, for instance, incentives to start a family or better facilities to enjoy family life once you have it;
  • Facilitating working-from-home schemes with the help of technological advances;
  • Policies that allow for part-time work extension (especially in Southern Europe) or sabbatical leave;
  • More flexibility in the work-life balance depending on age. Those who are nearing retirement should be allowed to work less hours. Perhaps then the protest against raising retirement ages would dissipate;
  • In the global battle for talent, Europe often loses out to the U.S. and Australia. In order to better attract the much-needed highly-skilled migrants that Europe needs, we could promote our more favourable work-life balance in terms of the additional holidays and leisure time;A switch from today’s system of taxing labour to a system of taxing a company’s resource usage could possibly have the effect of encouraging the employment of more personnel, thereby ameliorating the worker/pensioner ratio. This would arguably also make European labour cheaper. See point 14(a) of the European Council conclusions on sustainable materials management and sustainable production and consumption:
  • Policies that reduce the risks taken by young entrepreneurs: SMEs and business start-ups are becoming less attractive for younger generation because of time demands and perceived reduction of leisure time;
  • Policies that encourage self-employment via loans, regulations, etc. 
  • A stable living and working environment, the safety nets and possibilities for work-life balance should be seen and promoted as an asset to attract highly-skilled workers.

Some questions to ponder:

  • Why do we work so much? If it is simply to be able to buy more things, then maybe we should consider a radical move away from our consumer culture.
  • The decision to have a 5-day working week and a pause at the weekend is a relatively new idea in a historical view on the matter.  Why not change the rules again to better achieve a flexible work-life balance that would suit all?    


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