Towards a Democratic Division of Labour in Europe?, by Walter Van Dongen

Policy Press, 2008, ix + 288 pp, pbk, 1 84742 269 9, £29.99, hbk, 1 84742 294 1, £70

This book is timely. Recent discussion of whether or not a proposal for extending provision for flexible working is sensible during an economic downturn is just one symptom of the fluid nature of the relationship between family, the economy and working life in today’s society. In his book Van Dongen relates a considerable and diverse body of research relevant to study of the ways we live in different social contexts (the family, the workplace, public organisations, etc.) and of the ways in which we integrate the different parts of our lives.

Following an introductory chapter, in chapter 2 the author outlines a traditional dual approach to daily life: 1. production (understood as paid work), and 2. consumption (including leisure activities and unpaid work in the family and the community). In terms of this conceptual model the trend has been towards including more aspects of daily life in the productive or economic sector.

In chapter 3 Van Dongen opposes to this traditional dualistic understanding of daily life a rather different ‘integrated approach to the division of labour’ in which ‘the daily life of human subjects is seen as the daily division or combination of activities or labour processes and of their outputs/results’ (p.27). In this integrated approach, input capital is understood as combinations of personal, social, material and financial capital; human labour is the means of transformation; and outputs are again combinations of personal, social, material and financial capital. All human activities are thus understood as complex, and ‘the life course is the ‘time path’ or ‘time road’ during which all individuals are performing different activities, in each activity transforming the available personal, social, material and financial capital’ (p.31). A particularly instructive graph on p.34 shows the different allocations of time given to different categories of activities (leisure, social labour, personal care, family labour, external education, professional labour) in different periods of our lives.

After studying a variety of models for understanding the division of labour in modern welfare states Van Dongen describes his ‘Combination Model’, based on a broad understanding of ‘democracy’ as including a democratic division of labour within families and organisations.

Chapter 4, a historical exploration, could have come nearer the beginning. In this chapter the author charts the evolution from the strong breadwinner model of the 1950s and 1960s through the moderate breadwinner model of 1970 – 1990 to the moderate combination model of 1990 – 2005 in which there was a more equal division of professional and family labour.

And then in chapter 5 comes the ‘complete combination model’ (a ‘normative future model’ or a ‘policy model’) in which ‘nearly all potentially professionally active men and women combine the basic activities in a balanced way during the life course, avoiding one of these being threatened or neglected. During all stages of the life course sufficient time has to be spent on the different basic activities. So one can fulfil both professional and family responsibility and can realise a suitable combination of personal, social, material and financial capital’ (p.178).

The particular ‘complete combination model’ which the author discusses is compared to other possible models, and then in chapter 6 ‘full employment’ is defined in terms of both professional and family labour, a tax system relating to hours of employment as income is proposed, and child care and education policy are discussed.

The final chapter, ‘major results’, summarises the content of the preceding chapters.

It’s not always obvious whether the ‘complete combination model’ is a prediction, a possibility, or an ideal to work towards, but the combination of voluminous survey evidence and theoretical perspectives makes this an important study in an important field.

One final caveat: the author discusses Citizen’s Income (p.255) only in opposition to his preferred method for maintaining full employment (‘bridge jobs’). It might have been better to ask what tax and benefits arrangement might best serve the ‘strong democracy’ on which the complete combination model is based. The answer might have been a Citizen’s Income with either a smoothly progressive income tax or a flat tax – a rather simpler solution than the administratively complex taxation proposals offered in the book.