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COVID-19 has killed working parents' social contract in Denmark. What now?

Lisbeth Odgaard Madsen 4 May 2020 COVID-19 has killed working parents' social contract in Denmark. What now? blog image

When the majority of Danish workplaces and schools closed just over a month ago, parents were suddenly responsible not only for the work they were paid for but also for ensuring that their children continued to receive education or care from home.

All parents did, however, know that this was for a limited period only, and although many parents seemed to be challenged to get work done (productively) while taking care of their families, we managed to carry through. We ended up partially enjoying the extra family togetherness that was the blessing of the situation, while at the same time we secretly were looking forward to the day when we didn't have to split our existence into two anymore. We battled with being caring parents and conscientious professionals at the same time.

We went back to almost normal – or did we?

When Danish schools and kindergartens re-opened last week, the worst dual-role challenges disappeared instantly – now the kids go to school and kindergarten again, and the contract between working parents and the community is back in place: We hand over our beloved children to loving and caring hands as we work and deliver what we get our wages for and pay our taxes off. Or, you would think so.

Many children, however, still remain at home, either because their institutions now have limited space because of the COVID-related health measures that have been installed before reopening; because a number of concerned parents choose to keep their children home or fetch them earlier than usual, or because a family member or they themselves are sick, and they, therefore, need to stay home, as requested by Danish health authorities.

Thus, the social contract between working parents and society was first put on standby and then reinstated, but not on the same terms as before. For in the above cases, children still require care, while employers still require working hours.

Most parents can only work half time, while also caring for children

For most parents, home care or schooling means fewer hours of work and lower productivity. In a survey we made in our network, we found that 71% of the 900 responding families had both parents working from home after society shut down. Still, the majority felt that they were only able to put in up to half of the normal working hours while working and caring from home. Over a quarter (28%) indicated that they could only put in 0 to 5 hours of weekly labour during the period, which does not suggest much in a full-time work portfolio.

Thus, a mother expressed her frustrations in a closed Danish Facebook group:

We try to be good parents and good employees, but we end up being none of it. I work until 2 am and I get up at 5.15. My kids get their parents nagging and "wait a bit" all the time and they watch a lot of iPad. All my work takes three times as long to make and video meetings are with screaming kids crawling on my head. (…) All in all, I feel inadequate. Insufficient as a mother, insufficient as a wife and insufficient as an employee. That's f*@king hard.

Her statement afterwards received 70(!) comments of support and similar stories.

Re-opening still means no recognisable social contract

So, Danish parents are challenged while working from home, and although many children are back in school and kindergarten, the social contract is not yet in full gear. And something indicates that it will take long before it happens – if ever. Maybe working parents need to get used to a new normal that doesn't include the much-hailed Danish childcare guarantee - or at least high-enough quality care to send our children out of home for the amount of time it takes to do a paid job full-time work. And when it comes to rethinking the contract between parents and the community, we mostly see perplexity. To where should parents who both care for children and have paid jobs to go for help, and what comes first – the work or the children?

High frequency of work for everyone is necessary for our current social model

I predict that Danish society will suffer big time with the disappearing of this social contract. The economy and culture of Danish society are based on the assumption that both mother and father have a high employment frequency and thus contribute almost equally to GDP and taxes. If a large proportion of this equation is removed, when the possibility of care is reduced, it will mean both lower labour supply and public revenue. This will have devastating effects on the quality of welfare that is already being loudly debated these years in Denmark.

At the same time, it will hit gender equality in Denmark. Nearly half of the families in our survey had gone back to old-fashioned gender roles: Fathers primarily maintained their full-time jobs, while mothers primarily took care of the children. Thus, the challenged social contract may mean that fathers will be more challenged on family capital than they typically are in Danish families, while mothers will be further disadvantaged both financially and power-wise than their better half because they devote themselves to family life.

Therefore, it is time to rethink the social contract between the community and all the (tele)working parents in Denmark - both for the sake of families and for society. For the collapse of the existing contract will affect everyone more than we imagine.

Lisbeth Odgaard Madsen is the founder of Potential Company, a diversity consultancy that helps companies deal with gender diversity issues arising out of working parenthood, gender stereotypes and masculinity in working environments – both at home and in the office.

The blog post originally appeared in Danish as a commentary in the Danish national newspaper Berlingske on April 27th 2020.