Marriage, Work and Kids: An Ever-Tougher Balance

New Complications Include Older Newlyweds and Fears of "Career Death"

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LONDON, OCT. 26, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Juggling a job, marriage and children has never been easy. Now, it's getting harder, say recent studies -- and so far there is little consensus on how to tackle the problem.



Average age at first marriage has risen sharply in Europe in the last two decades, noted Eurostat, the European Union's statistical body, in an Oct. 8 press release. Eurostat's latest study on the issue, "The Life of Women and Men in Europe," reveals that in the 15 EU countries, average age at marriage for men in 1999 was 30.3 years, compared with 26 in 1980. For women the age rose to 28.1 from 23.3 over the same period.

The biggest increase was in France, at more than 6 years for both men and women. The smallest increase, around 2 years, took place in the United Kingdom, Portugal and Greece. The highest age for both men and women was observed in Sweden -- men: 32.9; women: 30.4 -- and in Denmark -- men: 32.5; women: 30.1. The lowest average age was in Portugal -- men: 27.2; women: 25.5.

The age at which women have their children is also on the rise. The over-30s give birth to 58.7% of the children in Spain, the paper El País reported Oct. 21. Britain and Spain, with Italy a close third, are the European countries where women wait the longest to have their first child, at an average age of 29.

A number of factors account for the trend. Not only are women dedicating more years to their studies, but they also wish to enter the work force, said the author of the study, Margarita Delgado. The high cost of housing and the difficulty of combining work and having children also affect the decision to start a family. She noted that many women say they would have more children, if it were not for these difficulties. Indeed, over 25% of women would like more children than they actually have, according to a study published in 2000 by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics.

Not just a woman's problem

Most of the focus in this area is on the difficulties women face in having children while remaining in the work force. Now, the husband's role is coming in for more attention.

A study published in Britain by the Work Foundation showed that most working fathers will not take time off to look after their children because they think their bosses discriminate against men who show interest in child care, the Guardian reported Oct. 21. The report found a widespread fear among men that sharing equally in parenting responsibilities will lead to "career death."

Government data show that 59% of married or cohabiting mothers with preschool children also hold down a job. But, says the report, the implications for men "have not yet registered on the corporate radar. As a result, men are nervous about taking paternity leave, or asking for time off for flexible working to help them manage their child-care responsibilities."

The findings were based on unpublished research by the Equal Opportunities Commission. The research showed that nearly two-thirds of firms offered paternity leave, but most fathers did not take it. Only a tiny minority thought they could take it without damaging their careers or earning potential.

Starting next year, UK fathers will get the right to two weeks' paid paternity leave, and employers will have a legal duty to consider requests for flexible working hours.

An earlier study, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as part of the UK Work-Life Balance Week, revealed that almost one in three fathers works over the 48-hour-a-week limit set by the European Union Working Time Directive.

According to a Sept. 25 press release from the Rowntree Foundation, the study, "Happy Families? Atypical Work and Its Influence on Family Life," showed that the problem of work-family conflicts was particularly present for parents in lower socioeconomic groups. Those parents were more likely than those in professional jobs to feel they had no option but to work at atypical times.

Long working hours and Sunday work seem to cause the greatest disruption to family life: Parents with these working patterns were more likely than others to say that work limited their engagement in family activities.

The study also found that 21% of mothers worked early mornings -- between 6-8.30 a.m. -- several times a week; for fathers, the figure was nearly double, 41%. Late afternoon work -- 5.30-8.30 p.m. -- was slightly more common, with 25% of mothers and 45% of fathers working these hours several times a week.

As well, 14% of mothers and 17% of fathers worked evenings/nights -- after 8.30 p.m. -- several times a week. As for the weekends: 38% of mothers and 54% of fathers worked at least one Saturday a month.

Sunday work -- once a month or more -- was reported by a quarter of mothers and just under a third of fathers. And 18% of mothers and 22% of fathers worked every Saturday and Sunday at least once a month.

Those working atypical hours reported difficulties in attending to home life. Nearly a third (32%) of mothers with frequent atypical hours said that every week their work limited the time they could spend reading, playing and helping their children with their homework, compared with 12% of other employed mothers. For fathers the equivalent figures were 46% and 18%, respectively.

The authors of the study observed that although new employment laws taking effect next April would give parents of young children the right to have their case for flexible working arrangements heard by employers, this may not be enough to help parents whose power to negotiate is already weak.

A related report, "Employed Carers and Family-Friendly Employment Policies," released by the Rowntree Foundation the same day, revealed further problems in the work-family balance.

The study found that working parents with dependent children, and those who care for older relatives, are often unaware of the flexible work arrangements that could help them -- even when their employers have adopted friendly policies. In six large workplaces offering family-friendly employment, for example, as many as half the employees were unaware of the options available.

Challenge for business and governments

The November 2000 conference organized by the Pontifical Council for the Family on Globalization, Economics and the Family looked at some of the issues treated in these recent studies. In his address, Frank Hanna, managing director of U.S.-based HBR Capital, noted that the business world "can place on our families demands that are literally inhuman."1 He recommended that businesses think of their "human resources" as persons and not just assets. Such a change would greatly benefit families, contended Hanna.

Polish parliamentarian Maria Smereczynska recommended that the social and economic role of families be given more attention. The family is a basic factor in economic development, she said, but it is too often ignored in society. Governments should actively help families, creating conditions for them to develop and fulfill their role in bringing up the next generation, she added. With society's future in the balance, finding the right mix between work and home is a must-do priority.

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1 "Globalization, Economics and the Family: Proceedings of the International Conference on Globalization, Economics and the Family," Vatican City, Nov. 27-29, 2000. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001.