World Employment 1996/97: National Policies in a Global Context

International Labour Review, January 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

World Employment 1996/97: National Policies in a Global Context


World employment 1996/97: National policies in a global context. Geneva, 1996. xix + 200 pp. Appended:

Conclusions on employment policies in a global context adopted by the 83rd Session of the International Labour Conference, June 1996,12 pp. 35 Swiss francs. ISBN 92-2-110326-9. ISSN 1020-3079.

It is all too easy to succumb to employment pessimism. Popular arguments abound to the effect that the world has entered an era of jobless growth, that the end of work is nigh, that no feasible policies exist for reaching full employment or that, at best, it is a relevant goal only for industrialized countries. "This scepticism over the usefulness of the concept of full employment, strengthened by the patent failure to achieve it in recent times, deserves careful attention at the outset of any discussion of the employment problem." This new ILO report does precisely that. With a combination of original empirical evidence and rigorous analysis, this study takes up the counter-arguments in turn.

Is the total volume of paid work stagnant or declining? In fact, no. Employment growth may not always have kept pace with increases in the labour force, but employment creation has not generally decelerated since the 1970s. In addition, the responsiveness of employment to economic growth has been relatively high, and is even rising in many countries: the job content of growth is not slackening, at least not in those industrialized and developing countries for which relevant data are available. The elasticity of employment to GDP has remained broadly stable. And there remains much useful work to be done.

Is there a revolution in the nature of work? News of mass redundancies is common - and alarming. New forms of work, such as teleworking and the outsourcing of formerly in-house tasks, have emerged, but their scale should be kept in perspective; in some countries self-employment and temporary work are declining. A careful examination of job tenure in industrialized countries, taking account of structural and cyclical components, reveals broad stability, not its widely proclaimed collapse. And, the report points out, relatively long tenure is in the interests of both the worker and the employer. There are significant costs to hiring and firing, training new workers, moving to new locations, and the like - to say nothing of the costs of unemployment.

Nevertheless the Fordist model of a regular job is undergoing change. The employment relationship can take many different yet acceptable forms. A rise in "non-standard" forms of work can be consistent with the preferences and voluntary choices of workers, but employment security remains a legitimate goal. That calls for well-functioning labour markets, improved access to training and retraining, commensurate benefit coverage for all workers, and equitable access to employment opportunities. Policies to raise the rate of employment growth must be accompanied by measures to ensure equality of opportunity if distributional conflicts are to be defused, the report argues.

But does the powerful general argument for full employment really apply to all regions? Industrialized countries fear growing wage inequality and technological unemployment, and there are many conflicting explanations of the drift away from full employment in recent years. These questions are examined in depth. For example, blaming labour market imperfections for higher unemployment in Europe is common, but the argument is not convincing. On the contrary, evidence reveals an increase in flexibility in recent years just as unemployment has risen. Nor is there much empirical support for the argument that unemployment is a result of a mismatch between the skills demanded and supplied. Unemployment rates are higher among the less skilled, but that is not accompanied by much greater demand for the more skilled. It seems rather a case of the more skilled accepting jobs requiring less skill when confronted with inadequate overall demand for labour. …

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