Labour participation in a post-modern, work-life balanced world?

The best part of blogging is when the world echoes back, and someone challenges me on my ideas.  The latest question came from a dear reader, Amit, on the post I did a while ago on women’s labour participation in the OECD, particularly that of Japan and the Netherlands.

I’ve edited our email exchange slightly for easier web consumption.

Amit says:

1) The use of “abysmal” suggests that there is a pre-posited ideal state. Why so? It remains unclear as to whether the US and Scandinavian experiences with bringing vast numbers of women into the workforce fulltime are “correct” in an absolute sense.

Elizabeth Warren points out in her analysis of the US middle class, that women in the US workforce are there not just because they “want” to be, but often because they “need” to be, to afford housing and consumption at levels conditioned by media/pop-culture. She shows how the debt burden has risen per family, consistently, to the point where a prole+/bourgeoisie family has no alternative but to post 2 incomes to afford its suburban house (to which schooling is tied).

The US does not frown upon “assisted childcare” to allow women to work fulltime, but it also does not provide such care (though Scandinavian states do). For a mom to work fulltime in the US, the family takes on an additional expense burden (that eats away further into that debt servicing cash flow) of nannies and playschools, and the angst of knowing that this type of care is unregulated, and is held to a standard only on a caveat emptor basis.

Why is the US model good? Most American women (of a bourgeoisie status anxious grad schooled variety) I know, feel severe pressure to work and retain the “victories” of feminism, despite the strain it brings to their nesting and breeding instincts.

2) The Atlantic this week features the “millennial response” to the hook up culture, see it if you have time, and juxtapose with the Japanese sub-20 aspiration

3) I find your highlighting of the demand supply gap for the Y6MM+ man fascinating. If the US economy does not recover (through some fascinating and unforeseen next-big thing that generates jobs, perhaps it is Facebook?!), the same anxiety will grip American women of bourgeois extraction (and expectations).

There recently was an Atlantic review of the institution of Marriage itself, which shows that it will likely remain prevalent for bourgeois + (with richer women marrying younger and less educated and employed men, destined to be stay-at-home dads with part time work) and deteriorate entirely for bourgeois – (where marriage is largely abandoned already, 50% of kids are born out of wedlock, and 50% of those end up with an additional out of wedlock sibling via a different father within 5 years).

I’d call that sociological phenomenon of working women and stay-at-home-dads “inversion”.

I replied with the following, with mostly my observations and thoughts on why higher labour force participation for women is a net positive for society, and should be encouraged.

The reasons why I chose to highlight the low labour participation rate of women in this country [Netherlands] as a caveat for where the Japanese will most likely move toward, is because:

1. During WWI and WWII, most western countries’ female populations entered the work force because there were severe shortages of men, UK, US, Germany, etc.  The same didn’t happen in the Netherlands.  The country was occupied by the Germans relatively late in WWII, so it never suffered the same kind of labour shortages, which meant that women did not really step into the work force.

2. Contrary to popular perception, the Netherlands is a deeply conservative country.  Big surprise?

This is a country where the Christian Party is always featured prominently in elections, where they hold strong views on issues ranging from Sunday shopping (still a huge subject of debate even in big cities) to women’s places in society.  The views of the Christian party is well supported by popular opinion.  Outside of the Randstad (the triangular area of Amsterdam/Rotterdam and the Hague/Utrecht, the western and more developed areas of the country), women are expected to stay home after birth.  Those that rush back into the work force will have fingers wagged at them.

On top of societal pressure, child care is very expensive relative to income.  So for many, it is a  choice of finance, not one made out of emotional needs.  Germany is much the same, and the term Rabenmutter is quite infamous.

3.  It is perhaps then no surprise that, quite distinctly different from its Scandinavian neighbours, Netherlands has one of the worst maternity policies I have come across in developed countries.  Women get a mere 6 weeks of maternity leave after birth.  When I lived in Alberta, considered the Texas of Canada, women got a year off with 70% of their pay intact.

4. Now, you are saying, what’s the harm right? If women and families are happy with the way things are, why should anyone like me apply judgment on them?
Two reasons.

One is pure economics.  A country like the Netherlands simply can’t afford to.

On the one hand, it cannot afford to NOT harvest the productivity of half of its potential work force, which it has spent so much to educate.  I have seen statistics show that women on average are able to claim only 1/2 of what men can claim as pension at retirement time, because of the limited amount of time and investment they put into their working life.

On the other hand, 1 in 5 couples in the Netherlands is childless.  I have to do more research on whether that is better or worse than OECD average, but my guess is worse. If the examples of Germany and Italy is any indication (with shockingly low fertility rates), when faced with the choice to have children or continue building their careers, many women will choose the latter if society does not offer feasible options for them to do both.

We all know how demographics look in this part of the world. With a fear of immigration, putting children out at a rate higher than replacement ratio is the only way to ensure there’s enough working adults to support the graying population.  We’ve all heard this a thousand times, no need to say more.

But for many mothers or otherwise would-be-mothers, a lack of alternatives to pursue both tracks with social approval and financial support, they will choose one or the other, neither good for the long-run development of this society.

The other points is a bit more philosophical.  In a society like America, I think females have almost reached the post-modern place in term of gender progress (post Hilary, now Sarah Palin, so to speak).  In a place like that, some women can comfortably say, enough with that glass ceiling shit, I know I can do it, but I want to go home and spend time with my kids.  That is fine.  But that is after two (or is it three?) generations of struggles, to have bumped against the ceiling and made it, and to choose another paths.  That to me, is logical, and I would applaud mothers that choose that path.  But choice is the emphasis here.

The case with the Netherlands, and with Japan, is such that no such barriers have been broken.  It might seem a bit odd to lump those two countries together: one is confused with its Scandinavian neighbours in reputation when it comes to gender equality, the other is known to be paternalistic and operates under some assumption of misogyny.

But when it comes to the labour market, I dare to venture that they are closer than apart.  And it is somewhat misguided to think that just because its women have sexual freedom and ranks high on random gender issue/equality index, that the cultural and social setting, and the amount of gender progress made in this country is anywhere close to where America (and some others) is at the moment.

What do you think?  Write me and let’s talk!

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