The Social Quality of Employment: Europe Needs a Social Policy for Work

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This special issue focuses on one of the most important policy issues in contemporary societies and also one of the key determinants of social quality: employment. The five articles in this section, from contributors in the south as well as the north of the European Union (EU), report on different aspects of employment and the social relations of work. The purpose of this brief introductory essay is to provide a context for these papers and an overview of their key elements.

Employment and the Welfare State

European welfare states were founded on the assumption of `full' employment. Therefore unemployment has a critical bearing on welfare states and their sustainability, regardless of whether they are in the Beveridge or Bismarck moulds or a variant on them. Employment is, equally obviously, crucial to the social quality of people's lives. There is a clear link between employment and inclusion and, conversely, unemployment and exclusion. Extended unemployment leads to exclusion from the labour market, but not necessarily to other forms of exclusion if income replacement rates are high and social contacts are maintained. There are close links in some countries, such as the UK, between unemployment and poverty and, of course, poverty is strongly related to social exclusion.

For those EU countries within the euro-zone the strict rules of monetary union impose constraints on public finances and, for those outside, the perceived dangers of global competition seem to result in similar limitations. Boscoe and Chassard (1999) have identified three interrelated developments in employment, which are altering the focus of and, to some extent, undermining the established institutions of the welfare state:

* A reduction in the risk associated with longevity, but with a new risk of becoming unemployable after the age of 50 (55 according to Boscoe and Chassard).

* A change in the nature of the labour market and unemployment so that, for the unemployed, it is not just a matter of geographical mobility to find work, but also skills mobility to stay attractive and employable.

* New forms of insecure work with no or very low workers' rights to social protection which, in turn, create new demands for social protection.

These are crucial issues for all welfare states, again no matter of what particular European variety. They seem, more and more, to demand a new relationship between economic and social policy if they are to be tackled. There is a realisation in some quarters, particularly within the EU, that economic performance is determined, to some extent, by the quality of social institutions, by order, trust or `social capital' and that this is dependent on social policies.

The need to integrate social and economic policy was one of the main driving forces behind the social quality initiative (Beck, van der Maesen and Walker, 1997). But this integration must be on the basis of their own independent rationales -- a social policy that only serves the interests of the economy would be a very narrow one on which to construct social relations and institutions. The social quality approach also demonstrates that there are different institutional solutions to globalisation and its related changes in society, and not one `best' approach (Gough, 1997). The EU has developed its own process of adaptation to globalisation, which comes with less risk than the U.S. one (Vobruba, 2001). It is essential, if the social quality of Europe is to be sustained and improved, that policy responses to unemployment focus on the quality of employment and not only its quantity. It is the impact of employment on the quality of people's lives that should be a central issue for European welfare states rather than maintaining an outmoded work or welfare dichotomy. Then a key question would be `how can social protection systems best support the widely varied forms of work, both paid and unpaid, that EU citizens are engaged in? …