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German Government Wants To Shape How Citizens Balance Work And Family

In a new German government report on families, experts suggest a greater public role in helping families better manage their time. The Minister of Families wants "family-friendly" regulations. Will this lead to more flexible working hour

Felix Berth

German politicians have decided to turn their attention to time – and not just to something routine like official opening hours for stores or the working hours of public employees. Instead they're concerned about work and family time. As Minister of Families Kristina Schröder recently said, it's high-time the government developed "practical concepts for a family-friendly time management policy."

Schröder's statement accompanied the release of a new report on families. Compiled by a commission of eight experts, the report explores the time constraints faced by German families and looks at ways the government might make structural adjustments in order to give those families just a bit more time to spend together.

For some, this notion of government-driven "time management policy" is no doubt alienating – particularly for those grumbling about how government already sticks its nose too much into people's private lives. Every day has 24 hours: no politician, no expert, can change that. And every individual decides for themselves how to spend that day. So what's to regulate? And even if the government was to come up with "solutions," does the country really need them?

The eight academics who wrote the report would claim that at least one of the premises of these questions is wrong, notably that people decide for themselves how to spend their time. And they offer some pretty conclusive evidence to back that up.

Many Germans do not, in fact, think that they enjoy "time sovereignty," to use a popular sociological term. Mothers, for example, often wish for more flexible work time. Fathers are frequently on the job for well over 40 hours per week and feel dissatisfied at having so little time to spend with their kids. Genuine "time sovereignty" looks altogether different, the experts say. If men and women could really decide for themselves, fathers would spend less time at work, and mothers more.

Another phenomenon, dubbed "the rush hour of life," has emerged over recent years. Young adults realize how many things they are expected (and, often, want) to accomplish in just a few years of their life: get a job and start a career; find a partner; have children and spend as much time as possible with them when they are young. These are not unpleasant activities per se – but all at once?

Vague and incomplete

So now comes the question of what exactly politicians can do about the time issue. The excerpt from the report issued last Friday by Minister Schröder is rather vague on that score. One of the study's few concrete recommendations is that kindergartens make their opening hours more flexible in order to accommodate the fact that some 40% of Germans have to work "atypical" hours. Atypical, in this case, refers to night shifts or weekend hours. Good advice, but advice is cheap when the one proffering it doesn't actually have to do anything about it.

More interesting are some of the time-policy mechanisms the report excludes. For example, it makes no mention of German tax law, which – as an article by Stefan Bach and other economists at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) shows – has enormous repercussions on time. The article posed the question of how the way German couples spend their work time would change if a tax law known as "Ehegattensplitting" – taxation of a couple's total income based on equal halves – were abolished.

At first glance, that too looks like a bizarre question. What does that law have to do with work time? Bach thinks it has a lot to do with it. The core of the law is that the same rate of taxation applies to both partners in a marriage. This is very advantageous to men with full-time jobs. It is not the least bit favorable to women with part-time jobs: if they work more, their income is taxed at a comparatively higher rate. The DIW calculates that if the law were to be repealed, men in the western part of Germany would cut their work time by about 2% and women would increase theirs by about 8%. So that definitely has to do with "time management policy," but it is not one the Ministry of Families cares to recommend.

The same goes for the 400-euro a month jobs more often filled by women than by men. These also impact "time policy" because they represent an obstacle to women. The system pretty much guarantees that no woman is going to increase her work time significantly because otherwise her social charges are going to go up, as is what she pays in taxes. But that's not an issue if she limits her monthly earnings to a maximum of 400 euros.

Cases such as these were sharply criticized in another recent report on equality of the sexes for the Ministry of Families. That report, however, did not find favor with Minister Schröder. She sent a secretary of state to represent her to the meeting at which it was presented.

Read the original story in German

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