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Poll: More work flexibility would boost Finland’s birth rate

Finland’s policy of family leave was roundly criticised in a new poll by an NGO, with respondents rejecting planned reforms focusing on shorter parental leave.

Katariina ja Johannes Teppo kolmen tyttärensä kanssa.
Most poll respondents put family before work. Image: Matti Myller / Yle

A fresh report by the Family Federation of Finland has laid the blame for the country’s declining birth rate at the feet of what some respondents to a recent survey have called “a reproachful tone” in the debate about parental leave, with people who give birth and care for children at home made to feel ashamed of their choices.

Following the recent publication of population forecasts showing a steadily declining birth rate in Finland, political and labour market leaders have rushed to lend their support to an overhaul of the current system of parental leave during the next administration.

However according to the NGO’s survey, respondents rejected the idea of reforming the parental leave system if it would mean reducing parental leave. Survey participants almost unanimously agreed that families should have the right to decide which parent should use parental and child care leave before infants turn three. Nor did they want any leave quotas.

Additionally, the majority of respondents had harsh words for recently-implemented family-oriented policies. According to the poll results, some 80 percent of women with families and 70 percent of men with families said that Finland is experiencing a growing divide between families that are well-to-do and those that are not.

Concerns about providing financially for a family and the fear of poverty may also have played a role in depressing Finland’s birth rate, the report stated. However the pollsters noted that similar concerns existed during the previous administration.

Research professor Osmo Kontula was responsible for compiling the final report on the survey, titled "Family barometer 2018: Family policies in the 2020s". He wrote that "the goals of political parties and labour market organisations have somehow diverged from families’ interests."

The survey was conducted last spring among 2,500 Finnish residents between the ages of 20 and 59.

Parental leave flexibility a priority

The report showed that families’ most important priorities included more flexible working hours and the ability to more easily combine part-time work with child care. They also wanted to have part-time family leave and to have it in several spells, while they valued the ability to split up leave between both parents over several years, based on the family’s requirements.

That would mean that parents could take turns having parental leave or being at work. For example time off would be divided until children reached school age and it could also be accumulated and saved and could even be taken on certain weekdays.

The report condemned the fact that the current parental support model pays little attention to anyone but parents in full-time employment who return to their full-time jobs after parental leave. This was also cited as a reason for the falling birth rate, according to the report, because "an inflexible system doesn’t really inspire [people] to have children."

Kontula wrote that organising support based on a family’s needs is merely a matter of political will and would cost nothing. In the long-term parents could share home care allowance or parental leave, during which time they would be paid 70 percent of their previous earnings as a daily allowance.

Family trumps work in Finland

Kontula noted that in Sweden, parents are able to use parental leave intermittently and even on a part-time basis until their children reach the age of 12, unlike in Finland.

"Families there can themselves decide when it is necessary and appropriate. However the majority use it before the child is four."

The majority of survey respondents said they hoped they could receive the home care allowance until children go to school. It revealed that for people in Finland, family is more important than work. Kontula said he was perplexed, because "for some reason this fact has been almost overlooked in the ongoing public debate about parental leave."

Compared to family-focused respondents, a significant minority said that their most important goals had to do with work. Participants who did not have children also placed family first in the survey.

Support for curbing right to day care

The survey also asked respondents about their opinion on the best way to support family welfare. What was notable was that a majority of participants shared even the most trenchant views on limiting the subjective right to day care. Critics have said that restricting this right would create a caste system, in which the children of low-income families would only have access to half-day care.

Some 60 percent of women and 56 percent of men said they supported limiting the subjective right to day care, whereas just 20 percent opposed the measure.

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