Solidarity between the Sexes and the Generations: Transformations in Europe

Celia Briar (Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, Massey University, New Zealand)

Women in Management Review

ISSN: 0964-9425

Article publication date: 1 December 2004




Briar, C. (2004), "Solidarity between the Sexes and the Generations: Transformations in Europe", Women in Management Review, Vol. 19 No. 8, pp. 437-438.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This edited text came out of a European colloquium: “Women, Welfare State and Citizenship”, held in Amsterdam in June 2001. The social and political context was the re‐emergence of the concept of family solidarity in the Europe Union (EU). The contributions in the book are underpinned by concerns about the implications of the concept of “family solidarity” in the development of welfare policy and its likely effects upon women in Europe.

Both editors of the book and one of the contributors are based in The Netherlands and the other contributing authors are based in other EU nations, including Norway, France, Poland, The UK, Germany, Italy and Spain. All are established academics: professors or senior researchers in sociology, social policy, economics and related fields. Some contributors are already familiar to English speakers with knowledge of social policy; especially British writers Ruth Lister, Fiona Williams and Jane Lewis, and Scandinavian commentator Arnlaug Leira.

Social solidarity or family solidarity?

The common theme running through the book is the move away from social solidarity to family solidarity, and the implications of this for women. It would have been good have seen this theme highlighted more in the title and in the introduction to this collection, especially for the benefit of an English‐speaking audience. Instead, the concept of family solidarity is the focus, while social solidarity received little attention.

The concept of social solidarity has barely been explored in the liberal English‐speaking nations (although some solidaristic policies exist, such as state pensions and paid parental leave). However, it has been a fundamental principle in the social‐democratic Scandinavian countries and France, where it has meant a situation where the better off (for instance, childless people, those of working age, the better paid) show solidarity with the poorer members of society, including parent of dependent children, low earners and the elderly, via the state tax‐benefit system. Because of women's economic vulnerability though the combination of low paid and unpaid work, social solidarity has been of crucial importance to women.

In social‐democratic nations, levels of poverty among mothers and children have been kept impressively low. And because of the popularity of social‐democratic policies, despite high tax rates, solidaristic nations have been relatively successful until recently in resisting international pressures to adopt structural adjustment policies. However, currently all the nations of the EU (including Sweden, traditionally the most generous welfare state) are suffering from competition from minimalist welfare states, especially the US, and are under mounting pressure to roll back their own welfare provision. It appears that, as a result, the principle of solidarity appears to be undergoing some reinventions. The chapters in this book focus on the growth of “solidarity within families”, which, to observers from nations who have seen this process before, chiefly means additional unpaid duties for already poor and hard‐pressed women. This is the very antithesis of social solidarity, and represents a major change of focus away from the responsibilities of the state.

Emerging trends in family solidarity

The concept of family solidarity is closely connected with family policy, and is based on sets of complex and shifting relationships between individuals, families and the state. Although dominant patterns and trends can be discerned, the process of change described in the book is uneven. As Pearl Dykstra's chapter points out, in part, this is because countries have traditionally had different ideological frameworks in terms of family policy. The EU nations have had a range of policy frameworks: social‐democratic, corporatist and liberal. Some social‐democratic countries, such as France and the Scandinavian nations, have been characterised by social solidarity and a greater commitment to equality between the sexes. Others, such as Germany and Ireland have had moral‐conservative policies helping to entrench the male‐breadwinner family. Meanwhile, Italy and Spain, though being latterly somewhat more accepting of young wives’ and mothers’ transition into paid work, have been heavily reliant on other women in families (mainly grandmothers) to provide support for this to happen.

As Knijn points out in her chapter, moral conservatives have traditionally feared that state welfare will undermine ‘the family’; in this case meaning the nuclear, heterosexual male‐breadwinner family. Some feminist writers have agreed that this might be the case but have welcomed the prospect. Other commentators feel that the welfare state does not replace family responsibility, but does shape family forms and relationships. And as the editors point out in the introduction to the book (p. xiv), welfare systems which purport to be most pro‐family, ironically enough provide the least support to families.

The patterns of the rise and fall of ideologies and various welfare frameworks are being affected by international trends. In addition, they are influenced by social movements based on personal decisions at the micro level. This is the subject of Ruth Lister's chapter, which builds on the 1980 s work of Janet Finch and Jennifer Mason in the UK, which showed how women negotiated paid work and family commitments. Family relationships have been undergoing perceptible change throughout the EU. Women throughout Europe have been entering paid work in far larger numbers; and in this regard women have changed their behaviour more than men, who have not markedly increased their share of unpaid work.

Nonetheless, despite women's dual role, public attitudes and social policies in recent decades have tended to regard women more as individuals and less as dependent family members. The chapter by Jane Lewis picks up the theme of individualisation within families, and questions whether and under what circumstances this can be beneficial for women. Some nations such as Sweden (with its extensive parental leave and financial assistance to families) and France (with its universal free quality child care for children over three) have provided substantial assistance to parent‐workers with managing their two roles. Sweden resources men as well as women to become care givers if they choose to, even though as Arnlaug Leira points out in her chapter, many men have not availed themselves of the opportunity. Arguably, one of the main benefits of social democratic policies has been the reduction of economic power imbalances within families. However, for women in the nations without social solidarity, lower pay and time‐consuming unpaid domestic responsibilities pose an often insurmountable obstacle to economic independence and place women in a vulnerable position within families.

Can a way be found to move back from family solidarity to social solidarity? The book does not explore this possibility in any depth. Jane Lewis suggests a focus on men taking on a greater share of unpaid work and care‐giving. However, as the gender‐power imbalances which create the domestic division of labour are created to a large extent at national and international levels by social and economic policies, the task may be a significant one.


The terminology of family solidarity may be unfamiliar to English speakers, but the shift of responsibilities from the state on to families, especially women family members, is very similar to what has already been experienced elsewhere in the world. It is sad to observe this trend in nations who are currently still the last bastions of social solidarity. The commentators describe emerging policies but only some contributors propose alternative directions or strategies to achieve policies more likely to meet women's needs. A concluding chapter to the book could have been added to fill this gap.

Nonetheless, this book is informative, well written and readable. It will be of greatest interest to policy makers, students and academic staff who already have some background understanding of policy issues in Europe. However, the collection is also recommended to general readers wishing to know more about recent and current family policy developments in Europe.

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