Q&A Sofie Marie Brand – Family activist

Politicians need to put improving family life back on the agenda, says Sofie Maria Brand

Denmark is admired internationally for generous day care, maternity offerings and the high labour participation rate of women, but Sofie Maria Brand thinks we’re starting to lag behind our European neighbours. She argues that Danish families are still under too much stress, but it won’t get any better unless politicians put improving family life back on the agenda.

Brand, a freelance journalist is co-founder of Familiepolitisk Netværk (the Family Policy Network), an open Facebook debate platform for discussing family related policies. We spoke to her about what’s going wrong and what needs to be done to make Denmark a better place to have a family.

What sparked your interest in the debate about families and the labour market?

It was becoming a parent and observing society through the lens of a parent. It’s interesting that we work the hardest when we have small children, yet at the end of our lives find ourselves in retirement for 20-30 years with no obligations whatsoever. Why not work a little less when the kids are young and a little more during other stages of our lives?

I’m also interested in how we prioritise, both as parents and as a society. The pressures on families and the long hours children spend in day care are consequences of both personal choices and the structural frames enacted by society.

The mantra of growth and competitiveness in our society makes it hard to gain an understanding of the child’s perspective and family politics in general. I see it as a necessary battle for care, togetherness and wellbeing.

Why do you think families are under pressure?

It’s probably because of the everrising tempo at which our society moves, with both parents working long hours. The combined working hours of a two-parent Danish family add up to 75 hours a week on average, which is one of the highest in Europe.

Also, parents with children under the age of 13 are some of Denmark’s hardest workers. And according to Statistics Denmark they work more than Danes without children. Recently the Liberal Party (Venstre) government proclaimed that parents should work longer hours – but that is a terrible way to organise society as parents are already one of the most hardworking groups, while we have a large amount of unemployed people who desperately want a job.

What kind of support structures do you want to see for families with young children?

There are three key areas where we can improve – areas where our Nordic neighbours are ahead of us. Providing the option for parents to work less when their children are young – regardless of gender and industry.

Another is ensuring the right to stay home and take care of a child when it is sick, and introducing a form of taximeter-payment system in day care centres.

Furthermore, it’s essential that we see a new attitude that embraces investing in young children. This is essential because we know that investing in the early development of children is one of the wisest, pre-emptive investments a society can make.

When it comes to families, how does Denmark stack up against its neighbours?

In Denmark, it’s hard for many parents to reduce their hours when their kids are young. In Sweden, parents have the right to work part-time until their child is 8 years old. In Holland everyone has the right to work 32 hours a week, regardless of whether they have young children. And there is no support for Danish parents who need to nurse a sick child.

Most parents are allowed to take care of their child for 24 hours in order to ’find care’ for them. In Norway and Germany parents are allocated 20 days per year to nurse their sick child – in Sweden it’s 60 days! When it comes to day care, Danes typically pay for fulltime care irrespective of how many hours their child spends there – in Sweden payment is determined solely on the hours the child is in day care. It goes without saying that this helps parents save money, making it easier for them to cut working hours.

How can policy ensure gender equality among parents?

The trick is to develop a modern, visionary family policy, which ensures equal maternity conditions for men and women, thereby making it possible for them to work a little less when the kids are young. In Holland a quarter of men work part-time and the term ’dad-day’ has become normalised over the past few years – it’s a day where the father has a weekly day off to focus on the family.

That is progressive! At the moment, the Danish labour market is far too rigid. In short – family-friendly support schemes, regardless of gender or industry will be solely positive for gender equality.

How can Denmark stay competitive if parents work less?

It’s essential that both parents and children are healthy, robust and thriving to be able to stay competitive in the future. Right now, stress and unhappiness among all sectors of the population are causing our society immense harm. Secondly, it is absolutely possible to work more at other times in one’s life and a bit less when bringing up young children – over the course of a lifetime, that works out as the same contribution to society.

The head of the Max Planck Institute in Denmark, James Vaupel, has studied Danish demographical developments and suggested that our long life expectancy means that we should all work 20 hours per week until we are 80. According to Vaupel, that is financially viable for a society, as it would mean more people are employed and society would save a great deal on expenses produced by stress and unhappiness , as well as elder care costs.

But Danes still have much shorter work weeks compared to many other countries, so what’s the problem?

It is correct that a 37 hour work week works out to be a little less than the hours in many other countries. However, our employment rate is very high, partly because so many women are employed in Denmark and families are pressured by the collective working hours of both parents.

Of course, I’m not at all nostalgic for past family structures, where domestic affairs were primarily a woman’s domain. On the contrary, I dream of a visionary family policy, one which understands the pressures faced by two working parents and creates support structures which make it possible for both parents to work – all without making children the biggest losers in the equation.

Most children in Denmark start in day care when they are 10-12 months old and, on average, spend a little over seven hours a day in institutions. 13 percent spend more than 8 hours a day in care. We have to approach our thinking in this area more critically.

What’s your ultimate manifesto?

Parents, politicians and unions all have a responsibility to improve the family and balance for Danes, primarily, to help out hard-working families. But also, because we know that people who have a thriving family life are actually better workers and they’re less stressed. An incredible number of Danes are stressed and we must do something about that. We should take inspiration from Sweden and experiment with shorter work days and more progressive policies. I hope that we can create a future with more open, thriving, caring families supported by a visionary family policy. In that way, we all win! M

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By Joshua Hollingdale

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