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This book offers an interesting approach to the investigation of social policy, social protection and welfare: the achievement of family well-being across the life-cycle for each individual family member. This takes into account the life-cycle from childhood, through adolescence, adulthood, family formation, parenthood, education, labour market attachment and old age. Almudena Moreno Mínguez, the editor of this volume, notes that while there has been extensive research on changes in family structures and typologies, demographic and economic dynamics, the impact of the gradual entry of women into the labour force and different family policies introduced by various welfare states, sociological and economic research on the family has barely considered family well-being.

This book seeks to fill this gap, with its findings rooted in the context of family change across the family cycle in European countries with different cultural, economic, governance and welfare contexts. This is undertaken by combining different theoretical and methodological approaches to, and on-going research on, the quality of life of individuals who live in families.

The approach adopted is inspired by the concept of equitable and sustainable human “well-being”, developed in recent OECD research, which consists of both individual and social well-being, including such cross-cutting factors as fair distribution and sustainability with regard to available resources and elements that determine quality of life. The book thus considers four perspectives: first, the concept of family well-being as a central concern in economic theory, since individual well-being is partly dependent on the well-being of the family; second, current research results on the well-being of individuals at different stages of the family cycle (i.e. childhood, adolescence, family formation and old age) in the current context of growing risk and uncertainty; third, the impact of immigration and new family dynamics and structures on people's well-being and quality of life; and, fourth, the gender dimension, notably, the impact of women's entry into the labour force on the division of labour at home and policies to address the work-life balance.

These concerns are analysed in the volume's four parts. Part I looks at approaches to conceptualize family well-being, as well as the meaning of concepts such as social quality, and addresses the quality of life of parents with young children in Europe (chapters 2 and 3). Part II is devoted to family, child poverty and well-being in Italy in a European Union (EU) comparative context and the correlation between child well-being and lone parenthood across the OECD (chapters 4 and 5). Part III examines the various aspects of work-family balance and gender, starting with a comparative analysis of parental leave policies, gender equity and family well-being in Europe (chapter 6), new social risks and work-family balance (chapter 7), spousal well-being and the links between household income and parental task division (chapter 8), working parents, family and gender in Spain in an EU comparative context (chapter 9), and evaluating the development of gender, health and welfare in Europe in a historical perspective since 1800 (chapter 10). Part IV is devoted to social work, dealing with youth, the elderly and migrants. It considers the support and success in youth transitions (chapter 11), public policies to support carers (chapter 12), the well-being of asylum-seeking children in Sweden (chapter 13), and family social work in Spain, seen from the multidimensional approach of empowerment, well-being and the welfare state (chapter 14).

This book brings together no less than 22 academics from different disciplines, mainly sociology, social policy, social work, social welfare, but also social pedagogy, education and economics, from universities in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The book contains useful pointers to various factors that can improve policy outcomes for a family's quality of life, in different social and family contexts, including parents with young children. Discussed here is the role of employment and unemployment in modifying the quality of life for fathers and mothers in 27 European countries. Attention is also given to testing the applicability of the social quality concept to such families across the EU, examining the concepts of relative and absolute poverty among children, exploring the underlying facets related to the nature of labour markets and the complex interactions between joblessness, in-work poverty and the impact of social transfers (i.e. the role of the welfare state). The authors note that the countries that have the most positive outcomes in terms of well-being are those that combine strategies that aim at facilitating access to employment and enabling services (especially childcare) and provide income support. Other topics covered include leave systems, early childhood services and maternal and couples' employment patterns in 22 countries, which highlight the complex interplay between leave systems, gender and welfare regimes. Obviously, there are different impacts of converging and diverging care leave policies, and of different levels of leave generosity, which have an impact on gender equity and family well-being. Special attention is paid to choices related to reconciling work and family life, looking at how institutional and individual factors determine the risk of spending more time than wished outside of paid work to take care of family members. A specific aspect in this context is the difficulty in determining the division of preferences between work and care among couples with young children. Indeed, it is relatively rare that both spouses agree on their task division preference and that they are able to pursue their preference. Clearly, work-family balance depends also on the family model as much as on individual characteristics such as education, work situation and occupation, national cultural and institutional factors which affect family policies and individual expectations and choices.

A particularly important dimension – given the current labour market situation of young people, notably the high incidence of long-term unemployment, precarious jobs and exclusion (those not in education, employment nor training – NEET) – is the assessment of successful transitions from school to work, from adolescence to adulthood, from unemployment to employment, and moving between precarious jobs. The support to young people from a life course perspective is therefore essential. It is argued that assumptions about success and support for transitions differ according to varying contexts of youth transitions, and should be assessed by analysing factors that underlie individual decision-making and negotiation processes. The authors have tried to enlarge the dominant institutional perspective which reduces success in transitions to work and adulthood to entering the labour market, founding a family and avoiding poverty. They show that assumptions of success and support seen generally as valid actually differ according to different contexts of youth transitions, particularly as regards the increasingly uncertain and precarious labour market. They note that successful transitions include not only stable and well-paid jobs, but also trajectories with which youth can identify. Much more attention should be paid to the actions young people actually perform, and to analysing their implicit meaning rather than focusing on what young people do not do or do not do enough, or do too early or too late. Differing choices and actions by young people according to socio-economic background, education, gender, ethnicity or labour market structures tend to be interpreted as evidence for the structural determination of their agency through social contexts (for example, the coincidence of early pregnancy with low education, or demotivation for education with low economic status). While in many cases they appear predictable, they are far from absolute. Other factors are at work that can interact in the process of individual decision-making and these should be taken into account as well (e.g. new forms of family and family formation, concepts of work and career beyond existing occupational profiles, changing meaning of what is political and how individual needs and interest connect with collective affairs in the public realm). Structured choices and diversity in realizing meaningful and successful transitions show the potential of young people to mobilize support – informal, from families or peers, and formal, from public institutions – and negotiate their transitions through such interaction.

Another concern is the division of responsibilities between the family and the State in the provision of care for family members. While noting the existence of policies to support carers, which include cash benefits, care leave and in-kind benefits, the authors are concerned that these do not sufficiently meet the challenges that caregivers are faced with, particularly in the widespread informal care system across Europe.

In the final chapter, two authors reflect on their personal experience with family social work and well-being programmes, which they developed and implemented in Spain. They comment on the general methodologies and frameworks used for such work, which they feel are all too often based on stereotypes, reflecting the power structure of society in which the behavioural patterns of families are accepted as natural, leading to passive acceptance that disempowers the families and leads at best to short-term results. The first task of the social worker is to establish a different relational model that enables the individual to reflect and behave differently, and to break free from deeply embedded habits. The authors explain how their approach differed, mainly by involving in a positive manner the family and its individual members in assessing their situation in positive terms, enabling them to define “their” needs and formulate “their” objectives, in other words, helping them to help themselves, by understanding the environment in which they live (including the existing services offered by the welfare state, the role of the community, the school, etc.), defining their key concerns about their children, money, work, housing, etc. This participative process leads family members to develop a forward-looking scenario towards their social inclusion. Such positively formulated diagnostic and assessment proved to be the key to sustainable outcomes once the social workers have completed their intervention. In this process, the social workers must also be dynamically involved as agents of change to help families identify the problems deriving from social exclusion and design programmes to improve their social integration and their family well-being. This experience is obviously relevant to southern European countries where the family remains the most highly-valued institution and the last refuge in the current economic crisis, but should certainly have a broader audience across Europe and beyond, at a time when the welfare state is curtailed and the family is increasingly called upon as the last resort safety net.