Findings from the ESS: Family, work and wellbeing


In this post, Helen Russell (Economic and Social Research Institute, Ireland) and Duncan Gallie (Nuffield College, University of Oxford, UK) compare survey responses on family, work and wellbeing fielded either side of the 2008 economic crisis.

The economic crisis unleashed by the bank failures of 2008 was the most severe since the 1930s. The first repeat module of the ESS carried out in 2010 (Round 5) built upon a set of questions initially asked by the ESS in 2004 (Round 2) about family, work and wellbeing.

This provided a direct comparison between the period prior to the crisis and a period in which most countries had emerged from the recession. The repeat module assessed the implications for people’s everyday experience of the quality of their jobs, their family lives and personal wellbeing and for their sense of commitment to the institutions of their society.

It allowed an assessment of whether the experience of the crisis was similar across Europe or differed as a result either of the severity of the crisis or the degree of protection offered by national institutional systems. Key findings were reported in the 19 countries for which there were comparable data available by the spring of 2012 for both 2004 and 2010.

The findings provide evidence that the economic crisis had significant effects for the quality of work. It led to a reduction in the level of training provided by employers, to changes in patterns of work organization in several of the East European countries, to higher levels of work intensity and to greater job insecurity.

At the same time it undermined social integration through the negative effects of job insecurity on young people’s commitment to employment and by undermining people’s trust in politics and their satisfaction with democracy.

However there was also a marked stability over time in many of the differences between countries and country groups. Most notably the Nordic countries continued to stand out as providing by far the highest quality of work and the greatest protection against the psychological distress caused by unemployment.

It is clear that the institutional framework of countries – in particular their patterns of employment regulation and the nature of their welfare states – plays an important role in determining the quality of people’s everyday lives.

The two modules enable us to study the effects of the economic crisis up to 2010. But this is clearly far from the end of the story. From 2011, Europe entered into a new phase of the crisis – the Sovereign Debt crisis.

This is likely to have led to an even greater disruption of people’s work and family lives, particularly in Southern Europe. It could well have led to a much greater polarization between different European regions. It was also a phase of the crisis that was characterized in many countries by a particularly severe restructuring of the public sector, which is likely to have led to particularly harsh consequences for women.

It will be vital to ensure that the ESS continues to monitor the changing patterns of work life in Europe and their implications for both the family and the wider community.

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