Social imbalances in the EU

by Sylvia Schmidt
Despite the economic recovery of recent years, persistent social imbalances—such as those affecting women and young people—must be taken into account in the debate on Europe’s future.
In the wake of the European Parliament elections, this autumn a new European Commission will start its mandate. As the political changing of the guard approaches, debates on the future of Europe are in full swing. Moreover, the passing of the baton will take place after Europe has experienced a recovery in recent years from the economic crisis.
With that overall recovery, the labour-market situation has improved: as of April 2019, unemployment across the European Union had reached 6.4 per cent, the same as in March and the lowest since Eurostat started its monthly recordings in 2000. Correspondingly, employment hit a record high of 73.2 per cent in 2018, closely approaching the Europe 2020 target of 75 per cent.
But how tangible is the economic upswing for people in Europe? This question is particularly pressing as recent economic forecasts suggest a rather cloudy economic outlook in an increasingly challenging international environment.
In a recent study by Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Jacques Delors Institute Berlin, How are you Doing, Europe? Mapping Social Imbalances in the EU, we looked at six social challenges relating to decent living standards and working conditions, as well as equal opportunities and participation across Europe. The overall objective was to better understand how Europeans were doing in their daily lives.
What we found was a nuanced picture. Social conditions across Europe vary extensively, including by region or country and socio-economic group. In various areas, the economic and financial crisis has exacerbated some of these disparities in and between societies in Europe. And while some imbalances are rather cyclical, others are more persistent and structural.
Among the groups who still face challenges, in particular with regard to their labour-market participation, are women and young people—two groups to whom we also paid particular attention in our study.
Gender employment gap
Overall, female employment in 2018 was still 11.6 percentage points below that of men. The gender employment gap, which is also included as a an indicator of equal opportunities and access to the labour market in the Social Scoreboard of the European Commission, has more or less stagnated in recent years but varies substantially across EU member states. It narrows to below 5 percentage points in Lithuania (2.3), Finland (3.7), Latvia (4.2) and Sweden (4.3) but amounts to over 20 percentage points in Greece (21) and Malta (22.3).
A decisive contributor to such persistent gender inequalities in employment is the fact that women still carry the main burden of juggling work and family responsibilities. Overall, in 2018 the proportion of women working part-time was, at 30.8 per cent, almost four times that for men (8 per cent). Of those women, 44 per cent worked part-time because of family, personal or caring responsibilities. Using full-time equivalents allows us to grasp better the impact of gender gaps in paid working hours on female employment rates, as the figure from our study shows (see below).
Keeping the imbalances in family responsibilities in mind, poor provision of or unavailable childcare can decisively affect female employment. In 2002, EU member states agreed to provide childcare for at least 33 per cent of children under the age of three and at least 90 per cent of those between three years and the mandatory school age by 2010. However, by then both goals had only been reached by eight member states.
As of 2016, childcare participation rates for children less than three years old were still below 20 per cent in nine EU countries and did not even reach 10 per cent in Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These countries were also among the five with the highest employment gaps between mothers and fathers of young children except for Poland, which nonetheless was among the countries with the ten largest gaps (see figure below). In the cases of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, this gap amounted to more than 50 percentage points in 2017.
If we look at different economic sectors, we see that women are still under-represented in key sectors such as information and communication technologies and the wider domain of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)—for example, only 17.2 per cent of ICT specialists in the EU were female as of 2017. Yet women perform well in education: they represented 57.6 per cent of tertiary graduates in the EU in 2016 and, as of 2018, 45.2 per cent of women in the EU aged between 25 and 34 held a tertiary degree, compared with 34.9 per cent of men.
Factors which might affect the professional (and prior educational) choices of women and thus underpin such disparities in the labour market include gender stereotypes and social norms, the absence of female role models and inadequate arrangements for work-life balance. Moreover, obstacles such as personnel and recruitment practices, (lack of) future career prospects and at most limited access to informal networks might trigger women already active in mainly male sectors to change their careers halfway (the ‘leaky pipeline syndrome’).
Youth unemployment
As of April 2019, 3.2 million under-25s were unemployed in the EU. Even though youth unemployment has thus decreased across the union, to 14.2 per cent from a peak of almost 24 per cent in 2013, disparities among member states remain significant. While several EU members (Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands) report recent rates of below 7 per cent (April 2019), in southern-European countries hit hard by the economic crisis they remain high: youth unemployment is over 30 per cent in Italy (31.4) and Spain (32.7) and near to 40 per cent in Greece (38.8, as of February 2019).
As youth unemployment rose during the crisis, so did long-term unemployment among the young: The share of those aged 15 to 24 unemployed for more than 12 months across the EU doubled between 2007 and 2013, when it peaked at 8 per cent. As of 2018, youth long-term unemployment was 3.9 per cent but it still stood at 21.1 per cent in Greece and 15.6 in Italy.
A study by Eurofound explored the consequences of long-term unemployment for young people. Even though the impact on a young person’s active labour-force participation decreases over time, across a life course the study found long-term scarring effects on a young person’s future income. Next to gaining less work experience at such a decisive stage at the start of their careers, experiencing long-term unemployment can decisively affect a young person’s wellbeing: data from the European Quality of Life Survey 2016 show how young long-term unemployed are more likely to perceive themselves as socially excluded, to have lower life satisfaction and optimism about the future than short-term unemployed young people, those in employment or students.
And then there is precarious work: in 2018, 43.3 per cent of employees aged 15 to 24 in the EU held only a temporary contract, compared with 12.1 per cent of those aged 25 to 54 and 6.6 per cent of employees aged 55 to 64. In ten EU member states more than half of young employees were found to have temporary contracts, a share which amounted to more than six out of ten 15-24 year-old employees in Poland (62.6 per cent), Italy (64), Portugal (64.5), Slovenia (66.7) and Spain (71.2).
Temporary contracts can work as stepping-stones for young people when they enter the labour market if they lead to stable employment, but they can also keep them in an employment situation marked by insecurity. Indeed, research by the European Commission suggests that temporary contracts might have lost some of their ‘stepping-stone’ potential. In most EU countries, the period between 2008 and 2014 was not only marked by an increase in the share of employees with temporary contracts: over the same timescale, transition rates from temporary into permanent jobs declined in a majority of EU countries. Many member states moreover experienced an increase in transitions from temporary positions into unemployment.
Common challenges
The heterogeneity of living standards and employment situations across Europe allows of no simple answer to the question ‘How are you doing, Europe?’. On the one hand, social conditions as well as social imbalances vary significantly across Europe, among regions and countries as well as between socio-economic groups. On the other hand, the two examples portrayed in this article, as well as the other social imbalances our study identified, show that Europe faces common challenges: all the imbalances affected several member states and were not confined to poorer EU countries.
Taking into account the member states’ common social challenges related to employment and living standards, in the coming parliament and commission term as well as in the ongoing debates on Europe’s future more focus is needed on how the EU and its members can respond to such challenges. In this context, the question of what role Europe could or should assume in social policy should be integral to the discussion when national and European politicians present and debate their visions for Europe in the weeks and months to come.
(Sylvia Schmidt is a project manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Within the Repair and Prepare: Strengthening Europe research project, run jointly with the Jacques Delors Institute Berlin, her work focuses on European integration, social policy and the European single market.)

  • Social Europe
EU employment gaps – Sylvia Schmidt
EU parenthood and employment – Sylvia Schmidt