Family-friendly policies should be at the heart of the future Europe

Challenging trends facing societies throughout Europe mean that the needs of families should be taken into consideration as a key priority in setting future policies. The formulation of family policies should be aimed at supporting reconciliation of family and employment commitments. For that purpose, the FAMILYPLATFORM social platform developed a European research agenda to increase the wellbeing of families and encourage family cohesion across Europe. The research agenda highlights the importance of reconciling family life, including care responsibilities, with competing demands coming from outside the family, in particular employment.

Major societal trends and their impact on family life include globalisation, leading to increased mobility, migration, and increasingly precarious employment; a range of lifestyles and living arrangements including changes in gender roles; demographic changes, with decreased fertility rates, delayed family formation and an ageing population; longer periods of both education and retirement, and the development and spread of new information communication technologies (ICT).

Such changes can manifest themselves as stress, uncertainty and difficulties in managing everyday family life, requiring more complex care arrangements. They become even more critical at the so-called ‘rush-hours of life’, points when many transitions come together, such as when people decide to start a family, or when parents become grandparents.

Under these changing conditions it has become harder to establish sustainable family solidarity and cohesion, and European families are experiencing higher levels of separation and divorce as a result.

FAMILYPLATFORM involved 12 research institutes and family associations, promoting an exchange of knowledge between researchers and practitioners. At least 120 stakeholder representatives from the policy making community and civil society organisations were involved in all stages of the project. In its research it reviewed the policies of governments, civil society organisations and NGOs in 23 EU Member States, as well as Norway, Switzerland, the USA and Canada, and international organisations such as the OECD and UNICEF.

The project’s key steps were stock taking and a critical review of existing family research; a foresight exercise to identify future challenges for families; and the drawing up of a research agenda for the EU and its Member States. Topics for review included care and social service, family life-course and transitions, family forms in Europe, changing gender roles, migration and mobility, living environments, equality and diversity, and the impact of ICT.

Four different scenarios for families in the future Europe were explored with stakeholders, to uncover crucial policy issues and research questions likely to have a major impact on family life today, and in the future. It is predicted that while families in the year 2035 might be very different in form, type and style, overall they will have to cope with the same everyday challenges that families face today, but in a much more complex world.

Throughout all scenarios, intact family bonds and bonds to local communities remained a crucial element of the wellbeing of the individuals when facing the challenges of everyday family life. Despite varied and complex family environments, on the whole, most families were valued by their members because, as a safety net, they reduce uncertainty and provide a framework for mutual support. First and foremost, these ‘essentials’ need to be addressed when family policies are formulated.

The main challenges and recommendations for families and family-related policy, and research, identified through the work of FAMILYPLATFORM, were:

  • Acceptance of plurality, and the need for policies that support different family forms and lifestyles.
  • Gender equality – The preconditions for male engagement in daily family life needs to be addressed by labour market regulations, such as legislation on part-time work, flexible working hours, leave schemes and lifelong learning, and incentives to employers to promote family-friendly policies.
  • Ease the ‘rush hours’ of life, when transitions such as starting a career and family formation come together. Late acquisition of financial independence and stable employment means that young people remain dependent on their parents for longer periods, delaying the process of starting a family. Support is needed for young people to become autonomous, and policies are needed to reconcile family and work commitments.
  • Sustainable care arrangements are needed to ensure that families can reconcile care for children, the elderly, or the disabled with other responsibilities. A wide spectrum of options, such as a combination of institutional and family care, is needed so care solutions appropriate for individuals can be found. Provisions, such as childcare facilities can help reconcile family and work life, as can respect from employers for family lives.
  • Support for intergenerational communities – As women participate more in the labour market, informal support from the family and local community, and formal social services become more important. Local policies and thorough urban planning can support neighbourhoods and intergenerational solidarity, and encourage social networks.
  • Family policies should be based on evidence, and family concerns put at the heart of decision-making processes, especially in Member States where there is no specific national ministry or dedicated policy/ies for families.
  • Representatives of family organisations should be better integrated into policy making processes.

The research agenda that has resulted from FAMILYPLATFORM outlines the need for future research on sustainable care solutions, which are regarded as the greatest challenge facing the wellbeing of families; research into the phases of family life, how families cope with transitions such as divorce, and the effects of social policies on these transitions; and how employers and social services can help families cope with the everyday management of competing demands. There is also a need for deeper understanding of how policy can tackle social inequalities, especially given the increases in immigration and mobility.

As a result of consultations among stakeholders from civil society and policy backgrounds, the project calls for the development of new harmonised indicators in Europe, and more monitoring and evaluation of family policies. Stakeholders from civil society strongly suggest the setting up of a European observatory on national family policies.

The societal challenge "Families in transitions" under the 2012 SSH Work Programme (SSH.2012.3.2-1, with a minimum requested EU contribution of euro 5.5 million) builds on the research agenda developed by the ‘Social Platform on Research for Families and Family Policies’. Proposers are advised to take note of this preparatory work when drafting their proposals.

FAMILYPLATFORM – Social platform on research for families and family policies (duration: 1/10/2009 – 31/3/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications”, Research area 3.2 “Societal trends and lifestyles”. Coordination and support action (support action).

See: http://www.familyplatform.eu/

Contact: Uwe Uhlendorff, uwe.uhlendorff@fk12.tu-dortmund.de