In the midst of the current economic crisis, middle class families often encounter problems related to the work-life balance, especially when both spouses are forced to extend their working hours to make ends meet. Researchers from the Department of Social Work at the National University of Distance Education (UNED) have analyzed this phenomenon, which differs by gender. Sagrario Segado, member of the Koinonia research group and one of the authors of the study, discusses its implications.
Sagrario Segado, member of Koinonia research group./ UNED.
What role are middle-class Spanish families playing in the economic crisis?
The middle classes are the backbone of the welfare state, the main consumers and also the principal taxpayers that ensure the viability of our system. In the midst of the current economic crisis, they are being hard hit by unemployment, job precariousness and the ensuing social decline.
And what about the expectations of a better future?
The principle underlying the behavior of the middle classes is the so-called “delayed gratification”. That is, strive today to have a better life tomorrow. However, because our prospects of having a standard of living at least like that of our parents are dim, this notion is being challenged and is having a devastating effect on society as a whole. Expectations to live or reproduce the lifestyle of the middle or upper-middle classes is one of the driving forces of our societies.
The results of your research have revealed that there is a new family conflict in Spain: the work-family issue. Did it not exist before?
It has always existed, but the problem has exacerbated in today’s society, in which citizens demand goods and services 24 hours a day, and men and women work very long hours in shifts or at night. Until recently, middle class families traditionally had resources to cushion this conflict: either by working in middle or senior level positions that allowed them to negotiate their terms of employment with their employers or to pay for help at home to meet the demands of the job.
What is happening now?
Negotiating within companies has now become much more difficult because of this demand for around-the-clock services. Also, paying for help at home has become substantially more costly. That is, middle class families face a work-family conflict that is exacerbated by the crisis and market conditions, and no longer have access to the means they traditionally used to get by.
Why did you choose families of working married couples with an intermediate to high level of education for your study?
Because this is a group that has not been widely studied and represents both the middle and upper-middle class in Spain, where many couples have an intermediate or higher education. It is a group that is undergoing a process of gradual degradation, which in some cases becomes users of social services as a consequence of the current economic crisis.
What were the main variables of your study?
The work-family conflict, the influence of support in caring for the family, and how the presence or absence of this support can buffer or intensify the feeling of being “burned out” in both men and women.
What differences did you find in terms of gender?
The work conflict interferes in men’s family life, while the family conflict creates more problems at work for women. We are lacking work/family reconciliation policies and the sharing of roles and family responsibilities still carries little weight within Spanish families.
Is there any way to overcome these differences?
Social support for family care at all levels – from the micro level (household help) to the macro level (reconciliation policies) – is key: when the family has this support, stress and feelings of inefficiency lessen in both women and men. Moreover, when there is little time to take care of family obligations, women suffer more than men, suggesting that the traditional division of roles is still prevalent in family care.
How do these families manage their family obligations?
Family obligations are not optional, that is, parents cannot put their family’s needs on the back burner. Therefore, families as a group and its individual members are forced to meet the demands of a job that allows them to at least subsist economically, but which does not leave much room for personal and emotional well-being. Family members become exhausted in their efforts to meet the demands of both spheres of their lives, without satisfactory results. Spanish families deprived of their middle class status are forced to choose between work and family.
How do you expect this problem to evolve?
Because working hours are becoming increasingly long in our society, we need to design better reconciliation policies. If we fail to do so, the conflict will only increase in intensity. Since the number of middle class families in Spain has increased, as well as their social vulnerability, social work practitioners need to design better support programs that promote the reconciliation of work and family life for a group that traditionally has not made use of these social services.
Do these families pose a current challenge for social work in Spain?
In the current economic crisis, many middle class families find themselves caught up in a context of social exclusion, where not even their economic survival is guaranteed. The impacts of the crisis are heightened as those accustomed to the comfort social inclusion provides are further fragmented due to the lack of such comfort. It is not only a question of reproducing a lifestyle that has been inherited or corresponds to what we understand as the “middle class”. In this work-family debate, it is a question of not losing this lifestyle completely. Indeed, yes, these families represent a new challenge for social work in our country.
Sagrario Segado Sánchez-Cabezudo, Antonio López Peláez. “Social work with middle-class Spanish families: The challenge of the work-family conflict”, International Journal of Social Welfare, 2014, nº 23, pp. 100-111. DOI: 10.1111/ijsw.12012.
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