Some suggest that reasons for Europe’s slow economic recovery have much to do workers receiving too many protections with a disregard for costs and unforeseen consequences (evidenced in rising debts and high youth unemployment). In contrast, the U.S. economy is appears to be thriving (as evidenced by stock market surges). Differences between the United States and Europe have much to do with the way work is organized. Observing fissures in the wake of the Great Recession, and the opportunities presented by an economic recovery, opens the prospect for both Americans and Europeans to rethink the reasonableness of existing arrangements, including those that relate to work flexibility.
When it comes to access to flexible work (such are family leave and reduced schedules), what is reasonable? On an objective level, if flexible work arrangements cripple the capacity of organizations or a national economy to operate effectively, they are hard to justify. However, if family-level or community-level benefits result, costs incurred by organizations or taxpayers might be warranted. On a comparative level, what is reasonable can be framed in reference to normative standards, meaning the terms under which similar economies operate.
First consider the objective criterion. While there has been an economic recovery in the US, it has primarily benefited top income groups. It has simultaneously left many behind, as evidenced by flat employment growth rates and wage stagnation. One should not equate the lopsided US recovery as indicating an economy that is working effectively or to its maximum capacity. Given that the economy is generating more wealth, on an objective level it should be able to venture greater support for more generous flexible work options, such as paid family leave and paid sick leave. But as it stands, in the US limits are imposed on who can contribute to the economy, how, and on what terms. These limits hamper the economy.
Now consider the comparative criterion. Every country in the European Union offers rights to flexible work options and job securities that American workers do not have. As a consequence, employers stomach more constraints and citizens pay higher taxes. But in return, employees have options such as the “right to request” in the United Kingdom, in which they receive fair hearings for adjustments to their work arrangements. In the United States, not only can employers ignore employee requests for flexibility, they can also expand and contract work hours at will. Part-time work in Europe is not penalized as severely as it is in the United States, where a shift to fewer work hours can have prohibitively high costs (such as exclusion from employer-sponsored health care programs). Paid family leave policies that exist in virtually all advanced economies enable parents to take from half a year (Iceland for example) to a full year (or more as in Sweden), as compared to 12 weeks of unpaid leave that is available to select workers in the United States. And as one last example, consider that all European Union member nations provide employees with a right to a month or more of paid vacation time, as compared to no statutory right to any paid vacation time in the United States.
Under current conditions, American workers navigate careers in contexts of insecurity and inflexibility, where-as Europeans have difficulty initiating careers, but with far greater protections. None of the economies are working as might be hoped. On the basis of both objective and comparative standards, if other countries have gone too far in supporting options for flexible work, the United States has certainly not gone far enough.
Stephen Sweet is the author of Changing Contours of Work (2013, Sage) and The Work-Family Interface (2014, Sage)
Stephen Sweet, PhD
Associate Professor of Sociology, Ithaca College
Research Fellow, Center on Aging & Work at Boston College