Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Nordic Difference: Job Quality in Europe 1995-2010

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

The Nordic Difference: Job Quality in Europe 1995-2010

Article excerpt

Distinctiveness of the Nordic countries

Global competition, technological change, and the deregulation of industrial relations are common developments throughout the industrial world and are seen as unifying the conditions and experiences of work in varying countries. Meanwhile, empirical research has shown that there is a notable variation in job quality between countries. Comparative research literature has tried to explain the differences between countries with reference to diverse sets of institutional frameworks, which could mediate the pressures of global change in production conditions and industrial relations. The presumption is that the political and historical compromises on industrial relations and production systems are nation specific (Gallie 2007a; Hult and Svallfors 2002) together with nationally varying societal welfare institutions such as family systems, educational systems, and security systems (Bosch et al. 2007; Davoine et al. 2008; Esping-Andersen 1990; 1999; Lewis 1992; Pascall and Kwak 2005).

In previous comparative studies, the Nordic countries have proven to be distinctive from other European countries in terms of the quality of their work life. Workers in Nordic countries report a higher quality of work tasks and better opportunities for participation in decision-making compared with other European countries (Gallie 2003). Moreover, Nordic countries seem to score high in self-development opportunities and learning at work (Green 2006; Parent-Thirion et al. 2007). The higher quality of work in Nordic countries is an interesting but also an ambiguous phenomenon.

A growing amount of comparative research literature is trying to discern differences between countries' institutional patterns and cultural norms in mediating the pressures of global capitalism. The presumption is that there are differences between national political and historical compromises on industrial relations and production systems. National industrial relation systems define, for example, to what extent work conditions are regulated by industry-wide collective bargaining, or by enterprise-level negotiations (Bosch et al. 2007; Burgoon and Raess 2009).

Gallie (2007) distinguishes two forms of argument that have been considered powerful in explaining institutional country differences. The first one classifies country groups according to their production regimes and the second in terms of their employment regimes. These two rivaling approaches can be used to provide a macro-level explanation for high job quality in Nordic countries.

The production regime theory derives from the corporatism tradition; however, the focus is mostly on the company level. The theory emphasizes companies as actors in the markets and in the institutional setting in which the companies operate. The institutional setting combines interrelations among educational and training systems, industrial relations systems, national innovation systems as well as corporate governance and the financial system (Soskice 1999; 2005). This approach differentiates between coordinated market economies (CMEs) in which competitiveness is sought through an upgrading of workforce skills, while safeguarding a high employee control over the work process, and the liberal market economies (LMEs), depending upon general skills acquired through the school system and coordinating their activities mainly in terms of hierarchies and competitive market arrangements. The use of relatively low-skilled workforce is based on tighter managerial control, resulting in the intensification of work. Generally, CMEs are characterized by a higher degree of state-led non-market coordination than LMEs, where a greater role is given to competitive market arrangements (Gallie 2007; Olsen et al. 2010).

While production regime theory emphasizes the centrality of the role of employers, the theory of employment regimes seeks variation in the power resources, i.e., the relative organizational capacity of employers and employees. …

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