View Full Version : The European Family in Crisis?

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004, 04:36 AM
The European Family in Crisis?


In many European countries there is a pervasive discussion about family life and what will become of the next generation. The European family has changed drastically since the end of World War II.

There have been some major trends affecting the European family over the past 50 years.
Out of a Swedish perspective, some tendencies are discernible:

· an increased divorce rate

· cohabitation as a social institution has become common

· a rapid transition to two-income families

· plunging birth rates

· legal acceptance of same-sex marriage or partnership.


The Swedish national security expert, Sune Persson, has written that, ”During the 20th century, the five Nordic countries have developed societies which are perhaps the most successful in human history. Some of the world’s richest countries have emerged from a background of extreme poverty. Wealth has been more evenly distributed than perhaps anywhere else, and this applies to equality between men and women, socio-economic classes and geographical regions.”

Others appear to be considerably less impressed. The Nordic model of society has been criticized on a variety of philosophical, social-psychological and economic grounds. Among other things, it has been accused of weakening moral fibre, stifling individual freedom and creativity, hindering economic growth, and more.

Are such criticisms justified, or does the Nordic model have something valuable to offer, at least to the peoples of the Nordic countries? This and related questions were at the focus of a seminar on ”The Nordic Alternative” that was held in Stockholm on 12 March 2001. The seminar was offered by the Olof Palme International Center and co-ordinated by Nordic News Network.

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004, 04:40 AM
General welfare

For Lars Enqvist, there appears to be little doubt of the Nordic model’s enduring value in reducing poverty and promoting individual freedom. In his welcoming address, the Swedish Minister of Health & Social Affairs reviewed the achievements of the past century with an eloquent conviction that has rarely been observed in a prominent Social Democrat since Olof Palme was assassinated fifteen years ago.

”The basic principle of our model,” he explained, ”is that everyone contributes via taxation, and everyone gets something back. This strengthens social cohesion. It has also been demonstrated that general welfare systems-- those from which everyone benefits-- provide the greatest advantages to those who are least well-off.”

But not all disadvantages have been eliminated, and Engqvist referred to three problem areas of particular concern: the persistent unemployment of many workers despite the current economic prosperity, discrimination against immigrants, and the social alienation of the disabled.

Efforts to deal with such problems have been complicated by a major shift in social outlook. Citing John Kenneth Galbraith’s observation that the late 20th century was dominated by the notion that the poor had too much wealth and the rich too little, Engqvist argued that, ”The most important task, now, is to shift the perspective once again-- to take the situation of the least well-off as the point of departure for public debate and political action.”

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004, 04:41 AM
Four alternatives

As Lars Engqvist pointed out, such a perspective is implicit in the Nordic model of society, whose statistical profile was reviewed by Prof. Joachim Vogel. Summarizing a large body of data, he demonstrated that the Nordic countries form a pattern that distinguishes them from two other clusters of European countries on a number of dimensions.

The Nordic model combines an extensive social insurance system with labour market policies that promote full employment, equal opportunity and an equitable distribution of wealth. The broad-based labour market supports an extensive public sector and social insurance system by widening the tax base and limiting the need for direct intervention by social authorities.

Thus, the lowest levels of socio-economic inequality and poverty in the industrial world are associated with a strong state and a strong market, which reinforce each other.

In contrast, the Southern European model combines a weak state and a weak market with a correspondingly heavy reliance on the traditional family. Levels of poverty and inequality are high; and a personal price is paid by women, young people and the elderly in the form of financial dependence on middle-aged patriarchs, who in turn bear a heavy burden of responsibility.

A third European model is represented by most of the continental countries in between, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium. England, and to some extent Ireland, are special cases which in many respects resemble the southern cluster of countries.

Yet a fourth alternative, the ”American” model, was cited by economist Stein Reegård in a comparison of ”the two extremes in the developed world”. He presented data from the United States and Norway which indicate that the two countries are quite similar in terms of economic productivity. But they differ dramatically when it comes to distributing the fruits of that productivity.

The data reveal that the U.S. is clearly a society of winners and losers, with a minimum wage that is impossible to live on, and a corporate elite with an average income 200 times greater than the average worker’s. By comparison, income distribution is much more even in Norway, where it is possible to maintain a decent standard of living on the minimum wage.

These and other factors reviewed by Stein Reegård served to sharpen the profile of the Nordic model by comparing it with a very different type of society. The comparison is especially apropos, given that the Nordic countries are under strong pressure, from within and without, to adopt basic components of the U.S. model-- a problem discussed in greater detail by Prof. Werner Wilkening (see below).

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004, 04:47 AM
History of progress

Those doubts and obstacles notwithstanding, sociologist Irene Wennemo devoted a major portion of her address to a review of the progress made by Nordic women during the past half-century.

”Just over thirty years ago, for example, the majority of Swedish women did not earn incomes they could live on,” she observed. ”They were economically dependent on their men. For most women, having children meant being forced to quit their jobs. . . . The notion that fathers should stay at home with their small children was unthinkable.”

Since then, family life has been transformed, a fact that is clearly reflected in labour-market statistics. ”In the mid-1970s, for example, one-fifth of working-age women identified themselves as housewives; last year, less than two percent did so.”

The outline of a new family policy began to emerge in Sweden during the 1970s, as the labour movement started to reconsider the traditional model based on a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The transition to the more egalitarian, two-earner household was implemented with a series of measures, of which the most crucial was a major expansion of subsidized day-care facilities.

”The family policy that took shape during the 1970s took a stance for the right of women to establish themselves in the labour market before they have children,” explained Irene Wennemo. ”The results seem to speak for themselves . . . . Those countries which have tried to maintain a traditional, male-breadwinner model have experienced neither high birth rates nor high rates of female employment.”

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004, 04:47 AM
Be prepared

The final presentation, by Prof. Werner Wilkening of Germany, was a personal reminiscence of numerous study visits to Sweden, combined with an urgent warning about the powerful global forces arrayed against the Nordic model.

Prof. Wilkening began his remarks by listing 24 good reasons to study Swedish society, including nearly 200 years of peace, a commitment to full employment, political control of the economy, advances in labour-market policy and the work environment, the world’s highest literacy rate, expansion of the public sector to provide women with proper compensation for their labour, etc.

But he suggested that much of this has now been "eroded, scrapped, squandered, stolen . . . There may be people with very odd motives going around and scrapping this model-- not because they are evil individuals. They are simply representatives of contrary interests, a word that I have not heard very often today.”

The most powerful of those interests, he pointed out, tend to be associated with the U.S. model of society which Stein Reegård had outlined earlier in the day (see above). Acknowledging what he regarded as positive attributes of the United States, Wilkening related that most U.S. citizens of his acquaintance were highly critical of their own society: ”The system is increasingly felt to be excessively competitive, setting people against people, with negative effects on people’s lives, their identities, their modes of thinking, their self-respect, their dignity. The laws of the market permeate every aspect of live, and most mass media present life as an unending ruthless game, a ’knockout system’ which produces a small select group of victorious players-- the ’winning team’-- and ignores the masses of losers.”

The growing international dominance of that system and its guiding principles constitutes a clear and present danger to the Nordic model, he warned, and suggested that most of the discussion during the seminar reflected an alarming blindness to that danger: ”You had better get prepared for the new times. . . . Everything we have been discussing today may be history in something like 20-25 years.”

To underline that warning, he referred to the experience of Germany in the European Union, whose policies in many respects comply with the precepts of the U.S. model: "I cannot remember anyone in Germany-- not my union, not my party, the Social Democratic Party-- actively raising their members’ awareness of the restrictions on the use of public funds for the public good that have been written into the European Union’s Maastrich Agreement.”