Neoliberalism, the European Union, and the Question of “Work-Life Balance” — Ivana Isailovic

European countries enjoy a reputation as leaders in regard to “work-life balance”, which is frequently understood as a measure of gender equality. They tend to fare better than the United States on most indicators of gender equality and “work-life balance”, partly because EU laws and policies harmonize domestic laws and policies with respect to compensated maternity leave, the prohibition of discrimination against working parents, and parental leave for both parents. [1] Many commentators have praised the policies of member states, suggesting that the United States should learn from them. [2]

Unsurprisingly, considering such measures from a politico-economic standpoint reveals a rather different reality. Rather than being social measures that support equality, contemporary EU measures are economic instruments designed to increase the labour participation of highly skilled women. They result from–and also help to promote–the neoliberal turn that has been underway in the EU for the past twenty odd years. Paired with the weakening of domestic social safety nets and the rise of precarious work across the union [3], these measures–which might otherwise be understood to empower working parents–end up further marginalizing low-qualified and low-paid workers. This is due both to the structure of such EU measures and the context in which they are deployed: they target highly skilled workers and offer limited financial compensation in a labour market in which the number of working poor is on the rise, wage inequalities are increasing rapidly, and a generalized retreat of the welfare state has long been underway. 

In order to understand how “work-life balance” measures are part of today’s neoliberal economic project in Europe, a brief overview of the evolution of economic ideas that underlie the EU is required. Since 2000 the EU has advocated structural reforms to labour conditions and national social protection schemes in order to achieve high employment rates, attain “fiscal sustainability”, and facilitate “market participation”. States are encouraged to invest in “human capital”, tackle “rigidities” in the labour market, modify their welfare regimes to make them “financially sustainable”, and implement labour policy reform with respect to education, training, and “work-life balance”. Encouraging able-bodied workers to reintegrate into the labour market quickly and effectively is regarded as the best protection against poverty. Inspired by the Nordic countries’ “flexicurity” model, this approach illustrates a reversal of perspective: rather than sheltering workers from economic risks, welfare regimes need to create opportunities so that able-bodied workers may adapt to market needs. 

Following the 2010 sovereign debt crisis, this model has evolved further. The “fiscal sustainability” imperative has become paramount, and austerity measures once imposed upon defaulting countries have migrated into broader EU economic governance structures. Relatedly, the EU has recently acquired additional authority to guide, monitor, and implement its economic vision of labour and welfare policy reform. [4] In its recent recommendations to France, for instance, the European Commission highlighted the need to cut labour costs, reform minimum wage standards, and dismantle regulatory burdens on firms. [5] It is unclear how–and indeed whether–the recent launch of the European Pillars of Social Rights will ultimately reverse this trend. [6]

In this context, responses to “work-life balance” turn out primarily to be about labour supply policies designed to address “fiscal constraints”, achieve high rates of employment, and minimize women’s social exclusion and risk of poverty by ensuring that they enter into or remain within the labour market. According to the economist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, who influenced the EU’s approach, women’s employment is necessary for the sustainability of welfare states. In his view, women constitute a largely untapped reservoir of skilled workers. Retaining those already in the workforce and encouraging others to enter into it will allow states to widen their tax bases and relieve the “fiscal stresses” with which many are currently grappling. In the opening lines of its communication on the new directive on “work-life balance”, the European Commission embraces these ideas, clarifying the true economic objective of these equality measures: putting highly qualified women back to work. [7] According to the European Commission, “[a]cross the European Union, women remain underrepresented in the labour market. The economic loss due to the gender employment gap amounts to €370 billion per year. Women are increasingly well-qualified and more women than men graduate from universities in Europe but many disappear from the labour market due to their responsibilities as parent of as career of family relatives …. Taking action is not only a question of fairness, gender equality and optimal allocation of skills but also a question of countries’ fiscal sustainability.”

Why do these shifts entrench class inequalities? Because the EU’s measures will likely benefit highly qualified workers and those families who are able to sustain themselves financially. They primarily target highly skilled women who constitute an un-commodified labour force, and they do so in order to boost the competitiveness of the EU. As such, they are relatively unconcerned with low-skilled and low-paid workers. One illustration of this is that the new proposal on “work-life balance” excludes from legal protection informal workers [8], most of whom are women working in the care and health service industries. [9] Moreover, given the discretion left to EU member states, it is unclear whether some of the new provisions will be applied to workers in “atypical” employment environments. The new measures also disadvantage women on another level. The new EU proposal introduces a ten-day paternity leave. This is brief compared to the right that women have to fourteen compensated weeks, two of which are mandatory. But the discrepancy is not surprising if one considers the economic rationale of these measures: if the aim is to retain highly qualified workers, then having shorter periods of leave for highly qualified male workers makes sense. The gap, however, entrenches women’s role as the primary caregiver by failing to address the division of labour within the household, which, as feminist scholars have demonstrated time and again, disadvantages women both at home and in the market. 

These measures are likely to have deleterious effects on economically vulnerable workers. One reason for this is the low level of financial compensation for parental leave proposed by the EU. Currently, only maternity leave is compensated, with wide variations among states. According to a new proposal, paternity and parental leave should be compensated at the same pay level as sick leave. [10] This means that in many cases, periods of leave will be unaffordable for workers whose wages are insufficient. This is the case for workers who are at risk of poverty and whose number is on the rise (from 8.3% in 2010 to 9.6% in 2016). [11] But given the broader transformations of the labour force and its “gig-ification”, precarious work has become more widespread [12], and highly skilled workers tend to be represented in the low-paid workforce in ever increasing numbers. [13] The general retreat of the welfare state also makes it unlikely that economically vulnerable workers will have access to welfare benefits that subsidize reproduction and childrearing. 

The EU serves as a cautionary tale: different initiatives have supported the cause of gender equality and empowered working women, but today they risk doing so at the expense of more vulnerable workers, in concert with a neoliberal project eroding the welfare state. Another institutional project is possible: since the 1970s the EU has been active in the domain of gender equality and it is arguable that its economic model was not always neoliberal. The EU is a repository of practices that could advance gender and social equality, but drawing upon these practices requires a genuine commitment to such equality. 

[1] See, e.g., World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, available at; OECD, “Better Life Index for Work-Life Balance”, available at

[2] See, e.g., Michelle Toh, “These Countries Offer the Most Generous Maternity Leave”, CNN Business (19 January 2018), available at; Julie Suk, “Gender Inequality and the Infrastructure of Social Reproduction”, Law and Political Economy blog (16 April 2018), available at

[3] See Eurofound, “Precarious Work”, available at

[4] For details see European Commission, “The Framework: The Strategic and Governance Framework Underpinning the European Semester”, available at

[5] Council of the European Union, “Recommendation for a Council Recommendation on the 2018 National Reform Programme of France and Delivering a Council Opinion on the 2018 Stability Programme of France” (15 June 2018), available at

[6] European Commission, “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Establishing a European Pillar of Social Rights” (26 April 2017), available at

[7] European Commission, “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: An Initiative to Support Work-Life Balance for Working Parents and Carers” (26 April 2017), available at

[8] European Commission, “Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Work-Life Balance for Parents and Carers and Repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU” (26 April 2017), available at

[9] European Parliament Directorate-General for Internal Policies, Precarious Employment in Europe–Part 1: Patterns, Trends and Policy Strategy (July 2016), available at

[10] European Commission, “Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Work-Life Balance for Parents and Carers and Repealing Council Directive 2010/18/EU” (26 April 2017), available at

[11] See Eurostat, “In-Work Poverty in the EU” (16 March 2018), available at

[12] See Eurofound, “Precarious Work”.

[13] For details see European Commission, “Employment and Social Developments in Europe: 2018 Review Confirms Positive Trends But Highlights the Increasing Need for Skills and Inclusion” (13 July 2018), available at

Dr. Ivana Isailovic is Visiting Scholar at Northeastern University School of Law and Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University.