With Germany about to tip over the edge into population decline, and many countries already facing steep decline, there is little doubt that we need to support and encourage families with young children.  Is encouraging more flexible work options for parents one way to do this?  Even people who have more than enough money tend to work long hours, often also “catching up” on the weekend.  It’s pretty clear that long outside work hours and children don’t go well together – the work of the home is important.  Are people choosing long hours; or are the part-time and flexible options simply not there?

According to a recent article in The Australian Business Review, it might be more than families that would benefit from a flexible work culture.  As many Western countries’ populations age and governments prepare to lift the retirement age, there is a growing need for employers to manage a diverse range of workers.  Age gaps of up to 50 years are increasingly common in one workplace, and older and younger workers have different needs in terms of flexibility:

Randstad employment market analyst, Steve Shepherd, says that older workers often consider flexibility as providing the opportunity to work part time or hours that suit caring for elderly relatives or grandchildren. Younger workers see flexibility provisions as allowing them to work from home or elsewhere, or to start early or mid-morning. The Workmonitor found 73 per cent of Australian workers thought Generation Z workers [born from the mid-90s to the early ’00s depending on whom you ask] were more inclined to demand and expect flexible working arrangements, and it will only increase as businesses evolve.

“The younger generation looks at flexibility in different ways, not so much in part-time hours but more so in ‘why do I have to work nine to five in a 24/7 world’, or when they’ve got all of these dev­ices which they can use,” he says.

Shepherd says the challenge lies in how managers and executives manage workers, and keep them working together on projects and learning from each other. 

If you are a father, being able to coach a sports team or get to a school play during the “9 to 5” working day, but do a few hours of work at night after children are in bed, is a huge bonus.  If you are a mother, you might appreciate being able to do a few hours of work from home, but have the flexibility to change things around – like finishing it once the children are in bed or the next day – if you have a sick child or any other unexpected eventuality arises. While this approach to work might not work for many industries, there are many where it could.  For example, accounting, law, journalism, web design, architecture, and research are all jobs that, with an internet connection, can be done at least in part in a project or deadline-based way with meetings to facilitate work.  Moreover, employees that are tied to a desk and expected to work late as a norm actually waste a lot of time in my experience. 

We can look to the Netherlands to see the highest part-time work rates in the world.  More than half of the Dutch working population works part time, a far greater share than in any other rich-world country. On average only a fifth of the working-age population in EU member states holds a part-time job (8.7% of men and 32.2% of women).  In the Netherlands 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women work less than 36 hours a week.  While flexibility doesn’t necessarily have to mean part-time hours, the trend there is that both partners work part-time, encouraging a team approach to parenting.

The Economist explains that part of the reason for this is Dutch women’s relative late entry to the labour market. Until the 1980s the government’s focussed on creating a society where women could stay at home with children, and most could afford to do so.  This changed when the government decided, as is the narrative in many Western countries, that ‘productivity’ reports and increasing the country’s overall economic output necessitated day care subsidy schemes to mobilise women into the job market. However, the cultural conviction that families still need mothers that are available to their children prevailed, and the state worked closely with employers to ensure that the new part-time jobs would enjoy similar legal positions to their full-time equivalents. Hence most women, and in fact many men, still work part-time, and societal attitude accommodates this way of working.

Making a conscious effort as a society to provide part-time or flexible work options where possible would help women who need to be available for children, but enjoy some work or simply need the money.  It would also allow fathers to share the load more when necessary and aid older people to stay in the workforce for longer, thus taking some of the load of pension schemes.  It might well encourage families to have more children; something which benefits everyone.

Interestingly though, work flexibility is obviously not a silver bullet solution to low fertility rates because, though relatively high in comparison to other countries, the Netherlands’ total fertility rate is still below replacement rate.  It has slowly crept up in recent years from 1.64 in the year 2000 to 1.78 in 2012.  This suggests that there are other issues for the Western world to address.  Like adopting a creed of pure capitalist consumption and a diminishing appetite for sacrifice in the name of a higher purpose (which recent studies show does bring greater happiness I might add).  In any case, where possible – especially given the internet and new technology now available, a labour market which accommodates children, family, and the ageing as much as possible is highly desirable.

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Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...