How Do The Dutch Make Ends Meet?

A recent discussion about Dutch women working only part-time and liking it that way prompted a certain sort of response: "Great, but how can they afford that?!" Good question.

A Slate article from earlier this week noted that "less than 10 percent of women [in the Netherlands] are employed full-time." And, "25 percent of Dutch women do not even make enough money to be considered financially independent." Yet the women discussed in the article work half-days, meet up for coffee in the afternoons, garden—you know, do enjoy-life things. My post endorsed this approach to life as more sensible, sane and humane than America's go-go-go culture and workaholism-as-virtue mentality.

But how do the Dutch women hang out at coffee shops when they don't earn enough money to support themselves? It's not so easy to provide a definitive answer. Some studies say that many Dutch women live at a higher risk of poverty than men because they earn low (and lower) wages; living alone puts them at greater risk, because they don't benefit from a partner's income. Other sources suggest that many women are doing just fine, based on personal observations and government research that shows working part-time is often a lifestyle choice.

A couple of interesting stats:

  • It's not just Dutch women who are working part-time: 24% of men do as well. The Netherlands is the "part-time work champion of Europe," a 2009 study by the Netherlands Youth Institute states, with almost half of its men and women working part-time. This compares to 18% in the rest of the European Union.
  • Government research shows that around 20% of Dutch women who work less than 25 hours a week want to work more hours (not necessarily full-time, though!), but less than half get the chance. Apparently, many women are told by their bosses that it's not possible for them to work more. That's gotta be annoying. A few years ago, the government created a "Committee on Labour Force Participation," which has since argued that having so many part-timers is one of the Dutch labor market's "main weaknesses"; it's pushing for more work participation among women.
  • The government's own research indicates an increase in the number of young women who want to work full-time, which could bring about a cultural shift.

Maybe the Netherlands' legendary social safety net makes the part-time lifestyle possible? Many sources suggest it's so. Government benefits help many part-timers survive, says Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a research fellow with the nonpartisan Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics, which specializes in international economic policy research. "Certainly, you won't be living an extravagant lifestyle," he says, "but combining wages and benefits, you can have your own small place." Articles and Dutch government docs support his description of a country that takes care of its people.

Some of you commenters writing from the Netherlands suggest likewise. Commenter PennyArcadia says:

We've got a well-developed safety net in the form of healthcare, unemployment benefits and state pensions. These are all great things. Awesome things. It means that many people feel they can afford a construction like this (though there are also many that can't), and that people feel relatively safe enough to go for it (though this is not without dangers - with the median age of the population rising quickly, it's not a sustainable model for the future).

And a few Dutch respondents to the Slate article wrote similar things. "[T]he fact that we have the opportunity to work part time so that we can be around to raise our children, the fact that in my country our government takes care of it's people to sustain a good and humane life, the fact that we enjoy life in a different way than american women, does not in any way sustain that we are less driven or less work oriented," wrote one commenter. "[W]e are just fortunate to be able to be there for our children, to have tons of paid time off, paid sick time and other great benefits."

Other commenters describe a different state of affairs. kikilikesthecinema says:

Living in the Netherlands is expensive, especially on your own, and it's even hard to find affordable housing (I'm currently on a waiting list to get a decently priced tiny apartment and guess how long I'll have to wait? About 3 years — no way around this unless you want to pay a ridiculous amount on rent or buy!). Health care, though it's decent, also expensive — a good chunk of my salary goes to it. Food, clothes, transportation (public AND private) is expensive, and this article does not cover any of this, or mention the fact that these women Olien must be talking about have to either be really rich or dependent on a significant other to support them. No Dutch woman I know lives like Olien describes because they cannot afford to.

And onebluepussy wrote:

It's difficult for women to get top positions in the workplace because it's basically a men's world. Child care is expensive, women are paid less so for couples with children the husband usually has a fulltime job because it's better financially. It's sad and most women I know are really frustrated by this problem.

So, once again: How do the Dutch women do the part-time lifestyle? Answer: It depends. Some are doing it comfortably because they live with a partner who's helping to support them. Others are doing so and receiving government benefits that help make up for low wages. Still others are part-timers but struggling to make it. Some women want to work more to struggle less, but are facing cultural and possibly economic obstacles that are keeping them from doing so.

Hope this clears things up a bit!

Going Dutch [Slate]

Going Dutch [NY Times]

The Dutch Family in International Perspective [Nederlands Jeugd Instituut]

No longer hours for women in part-time jobs [Radio Netherlands]

Dutch women settle for part-time work [Radio Netherlands]

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