Tuesday, 13 January 2004
This week’s Economist has an interesting article about parental leave in Sweden (alas, the Web version requires a subscription), a long-standing and generous benefit; they can take up to 13 months of leave, paid at 80%. Furthermore, it’s possible to divide this time between both parents, and it can be taken until the child is eight.
In combination with the Swedes’ excellent child and health care options, this provides a good foundation for a society; if nothing else, The Economist cites evidence “that fathers who take more responsibility for small children are more likely to stay in contact should the family break up.”
I can attest to the benefits of doing so; when Charlie was born, I was able to spend a few months at home with him, and I’m undoubtedly more attached to him (and vice versa) as a result. This wasn’t due to an enlightened policy by my employer at the time; they had the typical (for the US), one-week family leave arrangement. I was able to do this because the turmoil following September 11’s events led to a reduction in my responsibilities and, ultimately, my leaving the company.
I was lucky; the United States trails industrialised countries in this respect, despite a long-standing political focus on “family values.” However, things are getting a bit better; California is, this year, instituting paid family leave, whereby you get up to six weeks of paid leave when you have a new child (amongst other things). Hopefully, California will lead the rest of the nation (as it often does).
As this benefit becomes available, it will be interesting to see how many take advantage of it. The Economist points out that many Swedish fathers don’t, for reasons that are unclear.
Perhaps the real reason is buried in another article in the same issue, regarding working hours in Britain; there’s a suggestion that employers are making it clear to workers that if they take advantage of the benefits they’re entitled to (whether it be a limit to the number of hours they work, or the ability to take time off for your family), they’ll be passed over for promotion, or not hired at all. Even if it isn’t explicit, there’s always the guy down the hall who’s willing to neglect his family to climb the corporate ladder. Or just somebody with house payments.
Furthermore, there’s a fascinating interaction here regarding equal pay for women. According to the first article, men’s unwillingness to take such leave “frustrates feminists, who believe that shared responsibility for child care is a key to equality in the labour market.” Makes sense.
One approach to solving these problems would be to make these benefits mandatory, where possible, thereby removing the dilemma of choosing a job over one’s personal life. The Economist doesn’t seem to think this will fly because it smacks of social engineering. Considering how our lives are already engineered by corporate interests, focus group-driven marketing, and frankly bizarre national mores, I don’t think a little more would hurt.