Saturday 21 September 2019

Despite childcare woe, simply apeing our Nordic cousins may not be answer

Despite recent tinkering around the edges, the cost remains a financial nightmare for many couples in Ireland. (Stock picture)
Despite recent tinkering around the edges, the cost remains a financial nightmare for many couples in Ireland. (Stock picture)

Gerard O’Regan

I was shooting the breeze with a chap from Sweden a few nights ago - for some reason or other I felt on the back foot all evening as we swapped anecdotes and asides about our respective countries.

He is after all from what seems one of those super-duper Nordic places. There they seem to get so much right all the time, while clumsy folk such as ourselves, and other europeans like the Brits, flounder around the place. At least that's how it seems looking at things from afar.

Childcare is a case in point. Despite recent tinkering around the edges, the cost remains a financial nightmare for many couples in Ireland, and is likely to remain so for years to come. Then there is the low-level terror many Irish parents feel, as they worry that some of our crèches are simply not up to standard.

In a way how could they be? A huge number of the childminders are seriously disgruntled, enduring low pay.

But in Sweden it all looks so different. Huge financial and other resources support the 'dual earner family model'.

This means that the number of Swedish women in the workforce, with children under the age of six, is the third highest in the EU.

Extended paid leave arrangements can be availed of by both sexes - and indeed there are various incentives to try to ensure men are as much involved in the whole childcare process as are women.

However, there are some less reported downsides to this Nordic utopia. Despite the relentless push for more career equality between the sexes, it is mostly mothers who still resort to part-time work. This is an obvious hazard in the battle to try to hold their place in the office pecking order.

When it comes to shattering the gender-based glass ceiling in the workplace, even in Sweden that war is far from over. The number of women in senior management jobs significantly lags behind men, and there remains a continuing gap in income between the sexes.

Critics of the Swedish model claim that sick leave among Swedish females is among the highest in Europe, with 50pc retiring from the workforce before the age of 65, tired of a never-ending quest to try to 'have it all'.

But from an Irish perspective the bottom line is that Swedish parents have a real choice: their heavily subsidised childcare system 'does not equal the cost of a second mortgage' as is the case in Ireland.

Word has it that in Sweden they've also worked out the conundrum of hiking up tax rates but in return creating really top class public services.

Equating the two remains a never-ending source of public debate in this country.

The tax burden for many Irish workers, ensnared in the PAYE and USC trap, results in a substantial whack taken from their earnings.

Yet securing high standard public services, in return, remains an ongoing hassle.

The bus and rail network, for example, is on a kind of financial precipice, with a question mark now hanging over many rural routes.

So should we be aping the Nordics in the way they do things?

One of the best insights into their collective mindset is a book called 'The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the myth of the Scandinavian Utopia'. The author is British journalist, Michael Booth, who just so happens to be married to a Danish woman.

Yet he finds it difficult to decide whether he should love or loathe these people from the north.

For example - and with due deference to my Swedish acquaintance - he concludes that despite all their obvious social advances, the Swedes in general can be a fairly "uptight" lot.

When it comes to the Norwegians it is suggested too many have lost their work ethic.

For example, the country has one of the most generous sick pay schemes in the world - but also one of the highest rates of absenteeism from the workplace. Are the two connected?

Meanwhile, the Finns may have their much-lauded system of education, but they also have got one hell of a booze problem. Alcohol abuse is the number one cause of death among males.

The Danes, despite their cradle to the grave welfare network, are among the world's highest consumers of anti-depressants. However, it is conceded that as a people they often appear "sexy, gorgeous and beautiful".

As for the Icelanders, almost forgotten in their eyrie in the far, far, north, perhaps one insight into the national psyche is that they had to axe their version of 'X Factor' after just three series.

They had simply run out of contestants with even a modicum of talent. It doesn't say much for the reservoir of entertainment skills in the country. One observer concluded that "Scandinavians are frosty, charmless, and emotionally constipated".

But he is probably nursing a secret jealousy of those Nordics - just like so many of us.

Irish Independent

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