Sun, Jan 02, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Dutch professionals work shorter weeks for work-life balance

By Katrin Bennhold  /  NY Times News Service, UTRECHT, the Netherlands

At 37, Remco Vermaire is the youngest partner in his law firm. His banker clients expect him on call constantly — except on Fridays, when he looks after his two children.

Fourteen of the firm’s 33 lawyers work part time, as do many of their high-powered spouses. Some clients do, too.

“Working four days a week is now the rule rather than the exception among my friends,” said Vermaire, the firm’s first lawyer to take a “daddy day” in 2006.

Within a year, all the other male lawyers with young children followed suit.

For reasons that blend tradition and modernity, three in four working Dutch women already work part time. Female-dominated sectors like health and education operate almost entirely on job-sharing; even childless women and mothers of grown children trade income for time off. That has exacted an enduring price on women’s financial independence.

However, at the same time, in just a few years, the four-day workweek here has ceased being a woman’s prerogative and become a powerful tool to attract and retain talent — male and female — in a competitive Dutch labor market.

Indeed, for a growing group of younger professionals, the appetite for a shorter, more flexible workweek appears to be spreading, with implications for everything from gender identity to rush-hour traffic.

The Dutch culture of part-time work has in a sense fast-forwarded history, offering a peek at challenges — and potential solutions — facing nations with aging work forces and skills shortages.

“Our part-time experience has taught us that you can organize work in a rhythm other than nine-to-five,” said Pia Dijkstra, a member of Parliament and well-known former news anchor who led a task force on women’s work practices. “Now, we have to take that to the next level.”

“The next generation is already doing it,” she said, pointing to a growing trend toward more flexible work practices. “They are turning our part-time culture from a weakness into a strength.”

The Netherlands may be famously liberal, but traditional gender stereotypes are strong.

The country has long sought to keep women at home. From 1904 to 1940, 12 bills banned categories of married women from paid work, perpetuating the tradition of domestic motherhood.

The first part-time jobs for married women came with early labor shortages in the 1950s. However, it was not until 1996 that the government gave part-time employees equal status with full-timers; in 2000 came the statutory right for all workers to determine the number of hours they work. An employer can object, but must demonstrate serious obstacles. Requests are rarely declined, at least overtly.

On average, men still increase their hours when they have children. However, with one in three Dutch men now either working part time or squeezing a full-time job into four days, the Papa dag, or “Daddy day,” has become part of the language. Nearly a quarter of Dutch men have reduced hours, compared with 10 percent across the EU and in the US.

Dutch fathers are vocal about altering their work-life balance. The government awarded a Modern Man Prize for breaking gender stereotypes. Rutger Groot Wassink won for co-founding a campaign that promotes part-time work for men — and for working four days a week himself.

“Men have been excluded from this debate for too long,” said Wassink, noting a poll showing 65 percent of Dutch fathers would like to work less.

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