The 23 Best Countries for Work-Life Balance (We Are Number 23)


Northern Europe leads the world in laying out a social safety net for children and poorer parents, but the U.S. snags a top-five finish in the key "Working Mothers" category



With the lowest child-poverty rate among developed nations, Denmark was named the best country for work-life balance in a 2011 report from the OECD.

All three Scandinavian countries -- Denmark, Sweden, and Norway -- finished in the top seven in the ranking. So famous for their generous social safety net, which sharply divides liberals and conservatives between envy and consternation, northern Europe dominated the list, taking almost all the top ten spots.

What constitutes a balance between work and life? The OECD settled on three chief variables: (1) The share of the labor force that works very long hours (more than 50 hours a week); (2) time spent on "leisure and personal care" (defined in contrast to paid or unpaid work as spending time with friends, going to the movies, pursuing hobbies, sleeping, eating, etc.); and (3) employment rates for women who have children. The United States, which leads most of the world in share of mothers who are working, lagged in leisure time and share of overworked employees. Onto the list, with some analysis below:

The OECD chided the U.S. for insufficient investment in child welfare and for being "the only OECD country without a national paid parental leave policy." But leave is short for a reason, they wrote: Much of our welfare is run through our tax code, which means we have to work for our welfare. "US family well-being is strongly linked to employment because a significant proportion of public family support is delivered via tax breaks and credits (45% of total compared to 10% on average in the OECD)," the report found.

Perhaps the most surprising statistics in the survey concerned Germany. Europe's juggernaut recently set yet another record for low unemployment, but its family-work dynamic is one of Europe's most fraught. Only three developed countries have fewer babies per woman than Germany. The average first-time mother is as old as any country in the OECD (30), and the career costs of having a child are sky-high:

German mothers with adult children have, on average, earned less than half of the total working-life earnings of otherwise similar female employees. At 25% of median earnings, gender pay gaps are well above the OECD average (16%). Mothers spend twice as much time on care than men (over 20% against less than 10%). Germany is the only OECD country where the tax/benefit system does not favour second earners in families with children.

Compare with the Netherlands, where Dutch women work almost 2 hours more per day than men, and female employment has climbed to over 70%, if you count part-time work.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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