New forms of care work in European welfare states

Birgit Pfau Effinger
Birgit Pfau Effinger

by Birgit Pfau-Effinger, Professor of Sociology and Research Director of the Centre for Globalisation and Governance, University of Hamburg, and Professor for Comparative Welfare State Research, Dept. of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Southern Denmark

New welfare state policies for family care work

In the ‘housewife marriage’––the dominant form of the family in most mid-20th century European societies––senior care was mainly organised as unpaid work in the private family household, and was the wife’s duty. Since the 1990s most welfare states have strengthened the attendant social rights and infrastructure to the advantage of senior citizen care provision. As a consequence of this welfare state change, informal, unpaid work in the private sphere of the family has, in part, been transformed into formal, paid care work in the formal employment system outside the family. Several studies have analysed this change in a cross-national perspective (see Pavolini & Ranci, 2008).

It is often overlooked that many welfare states have also extended caring family members’ social rights and support (Ungerson, 2004). They have also introduced new hybrid forms of care work in family care that share some of the main features of work in the formal employment system outside the family, which I call a ‘semi-formalisation’ of the care work done by family members (Geissler & Pfau-Effinger, 2005). But thus far, there has been little comparative research into different countries’ policies support of these new forms of family care work.

Cross-national policy differences and related social risks

In my recent cross-national comparative research, together with co-authors I try to answer two main questions: 1) How do welfare states differ in the degree to which they support the care work of family members? And 2) how far do these policies produce social risks for family members doing the work?

To do this, we compared welfare state policies towards caring family members in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands (Pfau-Effinger, Jensen, Och, 2011; Frericks, Jensen & Pfau-Effinger, 2014). We showed that the legal situation as well as the quality and level of social rights for family caregivers differ considerably between the three countries. The Danish family care regime is the most generous in its support: people who care for their elderly relatives can agree a contract with their municipality making it formal paid employment (full- or part-time), and thereby access pay, employment-related rights and social security on the basis of formal employment. In the German and Dutch welfare states on the other hand, the situation of family carers is to some degree being semi-formalised. The generosity of the pay and social rights related to at-home family care work in Germany is only moderate, and Dutch family care is even less generous.

The social risks for family members in these countries who take over the care of a relative are consequently greatest in the Netherlands, at a moderate level in Germany and the lowest in Denmark. It is also important to consider that the social risks to caregiving family members are probably greater when they have little or no choice of whether to care personally for a senior relative in need of it. In Denmark the supply of ‘public’ care provision for older people and the related social rights are already comprehensive and generous, so that family members are free to decide to care themselves for a frail senior relative or not. In Germany, caring family members are expected to provide, free of compensation, at least some of the additional housework. And in the Netherlands, only to a relatively low degree do policies offer people the option to be ‘freed’ from the responsibility to give care for senior family members.

Scientific relevance of the findings  

The findings of this research are important from a few different perspectives. (1) They have consequences for our ways of thinking about and dealing with the relationship between formal and informal work. (2) They challenge traditional concepts surrounding care work done by family members and gender inequality; and (3) they question the assumption that welfare states support either formal (external) care, or the care provided by family members, since we see that generous policies for ‘public’ care can indeed go hand-in-hand with generous support of care provided by family members—as in Denmark.


  • Frericks, Patricia; Jensen, Per H.; Pfau-Effinger, Birgit  (2014) Social rights and employment rights related to family care : Family care regimes in Europe. Journal of Aging Studies, 29, 66–77.
  • Geissler, B. & Pfau-Effinger, B. (2005), Change in European Care Arrangements, in Pfau-Effinger, B. & Geissler, B. (eds.), Care and social integration in European societies. Bristol: Policy Press, 3-19.
  • Pavolini, E. & Ranci, E. (2008), Restructuring the welfare state: reforms in long-term care in Western European countries, Journal of European Social Policy 18 (3): 246–59.
  • Pfau-Effinger, Birgit (2014) Nuevas políticas para cuidados en el hogar en los Estados de bienestar europeos, Cuadernos de Relaciones Laborales, 32, 1, 33-48.
  • Pfau-Effinger, B.;  Jensen, P.H. & Och, R. (2011), Tensions between a consumer approach to social citizenship and social rights of family carers – A comparison between Germany and Denmark, Nordic Journal of Social Research, 2: 26-47.
  • Ungerson, C. (2004). Whose Empowerment and Independence? A cross-national perspective on ”cash for care” schemes. Ageing & Society, 24: 189-212.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s