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Work-family pressure is a universal 21st century problem for fathers

Photo: Kris Kesiak. Creative Commons.

Today’s children wish for a relationship with their daddy as a human “loving father” not only an authoritarian “father of duty”.

Fathers’ active participation in family life is one of the most important social developments of the 21st century and work-family pressure is a universal problem. As social scientists argue, today’s children wish for a relationship with their daddy as a human “loving father” (pere de coeur) not only an authoritarian “father of duty” (pere de devoir). In many places across the world fathers are expected to be accessible and nurturing as well as economically supportive to their children. This takes place in the context of a huge change in the working roles of women.

However, in the twentieth century many post-war public polices created systems and services that assumed a full-time home female carer, supporting a full-time male breadwinner, a work-family model that no longer fits the circumstances of twenty-first century families.

Long working hours remain a work-family barrier for fathers worldwide

Working conditions, in particular excessive hours, can be a barrier to active fatherhood. In rich income countries the work-family debate of the 1990s was dominated by discussion about the impact on family well-being of long weekly working hours – “the long work hours culture”. Despite the slowdown in economic activity in many regions of the world, the long-hours problem goes on. The working life of parents, particularly fathers and increasingly also mothers, can make sustaining a meaningful family life hard to manage.

The degree to which mothers work long-hours too varies hugely between countries. In Turkey and Poland 9 per cent of mothers do. In Greece it is 19 per cent and in Turkey it is 38 per cent. But in South Korea, USA and Japan, nearly all female workers are full-time.

Designated leave for fathers is key to take-up by fathers

The lesson from around the world is clear: designated father leave enhances take-up. Blocks of time which are labelled ‘daddy days’ or ‘father’s quota’, existing alongside the same provision for mothers, are attractive to men and their partners. It seems that fathers (and their partners) need more explicit labelling to legitimise fathers’ use of leave entitlements and it takes time for their use to become the dominant pattern.

The Iceland 3+3+3 month model – 3 months for mothers, 3 months for fathers, 3 months for either to take, all well paid – has strongly shifted male behaviour in a relatively short period of time. Introduced in 2000, by 2006 over 90 per cent of Icelandic fathers took parental leave.

Maternity, paternity and parental leave are good for child health

There is growing evidence that maternity and paternity leave following childbirth and parental leave to care for children in the early years has the potential for improving child health.

Scholars have conducted large-scale secondary analyses of parental leave arrangements and child health outcomes for 16 European and 18 of 30 OECD countries. These studies demonstrate better infant health associated with parental leave.

Asian policies to encourage fathers’ time with family: a response to falling birth rates

There has also been an emergence of specific father-targeted measures to support parenting and discourage excessive working in several Asian countries, as well as to increase birth rates, which have fallen below replacement level in several countries (Taiwan lower than 1.0 and Japan, South Korea and China between 1.2 and 1.6).

In Japan, despite economic stagnation and a cultural expectation of work devotion, company incentives explicitly promoting changes in father’s behaviour have been introduced. Under Japan’s Act on the Advancement of Measures to Support Raising the Next Generation of Children (2003), employers are obliged to establish two to five year action plans for improving the employment environment to support balancing work and child raising. The Government grants “highly esteemed” or ‘Kurumin’ certificates to employers whose action plans and achievement meet set conditions, such as encouraging fathers to take child care leave (at least one male employee must take parental leave during the period of the plan), promoting shorter working hours and measures to reduce overtime work.

For more of my research on fatherhood in UK and Europe, see the research website, Modern Fatherhood.