Helping parents in the Netherlands to keep all their plates spinning

Published November 17, 2016 – by Anne van Heijst

With a simple technique using a small stick, Chinese acrobats perform the tradition of “plate spinning”. Acrobats are challenged to hold up as many spinning plates as possible, using their hands, feet, chin and other body parts. The circus act demands the utmost concentration, because if one plate falls the other plates will come down in a porcelain rain.

Unfortunately, this type of concentration seems to have become not just a necessity for performing circus acts, but also crucial to raising a family in a modern society like the Netherlands.

The Dutch government has identified that our population is increasingly called upon to hold up different “plates”, meaning different responsibilities, such as working, learning and taking care of children and/or elderly parents or friends. Although the combination of different types of responsibilities can be fruitful, having too much on your plate – or rather to many plates in the air – is challenging.

New evidence shows that one in five employees between 31 and 45 experience high levels of stress on a regular basis, which leads to serious health issues, and prolonged absenteeism from work. On 29 May 2015, the Dutch government asked the Social Economic Council (SER), an independent organisation that carries out research into a wide range of social-economic issues in the Netherlands, to start research on this pressing issue. On 31 October this year, the SER released its advice on how to combine work, learning and caring in the future, A Working Combination.


In the report the SER defines four stages in life, that all come with specific needs: the young-adult stage (20-30 years old), the family stage (31-45 years old), mid-career stage (46-60 years old) and the active seniority stage (61-67 years old).

Citizens who combine different work, learning and care responsibilities are referred to as ‘multi-taskers’. The amount of time spend on multi-tasking is relatively low for most young adults. This quickly rises however, once they start building a family in their early thirties.

During this family stage 77% of working men take care of children, and 84% of working women. The 56 hours and 50 hours men and women respectively spend on multi-tasking leaves little time for education or personal development.

In the mid-career stage, care for the elderly is added to the plates of our workforce. At this point, one in seven men and one in three women take care of someone close to the family. The amount of time that can be spent on learning drops further. Some switch careers and others lose their job. These changes continue during the seniority stage, which is characterised by a decrease in the amount of time spend on multi-tasking.

The data in the report are a reason for concern. The time pressure felt by people at all life stages who are trying to combine different roles results in feelings of dissatisfaction, physical and mental health issues, failure to continue education and a perceived lower quality of life. Half of mothers with young children report that combining work and care is a heavy burden, and 27% experience it as a lack of balance (as opposed to 33% who experience it as an enrichment).

The SER identifies factors that could offer relief, in some combination: time, financial means, informal support, health and individual resilience. Data shows that more highly educated people are often in a better position to access these factors. Less-educated and non-Western citizens tend to enjoy less autonomy in their work, fewer financial means and less favourable health.


The government, social partners, labour organisations and the market can all contribute to supporting the multi-tasking workforce. The SER identifies that policies and structures currently in place to relieve multi-taskers are aimed at traditional employees. Changes are needed in both culture and policy to take diversity of working patterns into account, and benchmark against different stages of the life cycle with different needs to sustainably align work, education and care.

The SER therefore advises to develop future-proof policy in a number of areas. On some issues immediate action is possible and necessary, such as the smarter organisation of time and ensuring school hours and after school care are better aligned with parents working hours, as explored in another SER publication earlier this year. Some however, need further research:

1. Parental leave after the birth of a child;
2. A better combination of work and the caretaking for the elderly;
3. Incentives for “lifelong learning”;
4. Improvement of the market for the outsourcing of services.

These solution areas remain part of a bigger SER working agenda called “Human and Technology: Working Together”. The SER will organise a conference to look at them from an international perspective.

Relevance for BvLF

The SER’s data paint a picture of a society in which people struggle to balance their plates, from the beginning of their working life in their twenties up until their retirement. The concentration this requires from the workforce takes its toll in terms of health, happiness and productivity. Although caring for children is only one of many responsibilities Dutch parents have, BvLF will continue to work with partners to take care of that plate as much as possible.

The SER report contains a lot of new and useful data, for example on the time parents in the Netherlands spend with their children. We will use this data as a baseline to ensure that less-educated or lower-income mothers and fathers spend more quality time with their children. The issue of parental leave plays a key role in this, as well as the provision of daycare arrangements.

Although the SER has indicated these as solution areas, it has not yet taken a firm position on some of politically sensitive solutions. But the report brings us a step closer to the cultural change needed to bring about reforms. We will therefore continue working intensively together with public and private partners, at local and national level, in areas including quality daycare, parental leave and poverty support.

After all, parents are not just acrobats, but the most important key for children to reach their full potential.