Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Welfare Professions in Transition

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Welfare Professions in Transition

Article excerpt

Welfare professions constitute one of the backbones in the development of the Nordic welfare states. Working in the public sector was for decades associated with high status; public sector employees were trusted employees. Through their work, they had important responsibilities for the welfare state and its citizens. To provide job security-through employment as officials-was a part of ensuring the stability of the state (Åkerstrøm, 2001), and we saw the establishment of what could be called a public ethos, a special morality aimed at serving the needs of the citizens and the state (Hoggett, 2005).

The term welfare professions is widely used, referring to public sector employees in the field of, for example, health, education, care, and social work. So this term covers professionals who work directly in contact with patients, citizens, clients, students, etc. (Brante, 1990; Järvinen & Mik-Meyer, 2012). Along with the development and modernization of the welfare state, a number of new welfare professions, such as pedagogues, social works, physiotherapists, social care assistants, and auxiliary nurses have joined the existing ones like nurses, teachers, psychologists, and physicians.

At the same time, however, the public sector has undergone dramatic changes as part of a neoliberal transformation of the welfare state. With the New Public Management (NPM) wave from 1980s and onwards efforts to restructure public institutions and introduce market-like relationships between them, to outsource and privatize public services and to transform citizens to customers in a market have prevailed (Busch, 2005; Christensen & Lægreid, 2007; Greve, 2008). Within this reform strategy, welfare professionals are perceived as part of the problem that NPM is created to solve, namely an uncontrollable and wildly growing bureaucracy (Clarke & Newman, 1997).

So, the Nordic variant of NPM is in fact paradoxical. On the one hand, professionalism and development of new welfare professions has been a key element. On the other hand, NPM implies attempts to challenge the professions' monopoly to assess the quality of work by installing rational and standardized management models. While new professionalism is cultivated, its autonomy is defied (Dahl & Rasmussen, 2012). Some authors propose that the increased focus on efficiency, monitoring, and accountability may give rise to a new form of "NPM-professionalism," where professional work is turned into service products, clients into customers, and the professionals are encouraged to be "enterprising change agents" (e.g., Evetts, 2009). On this background, tensions and contradictions in the working life of welfare professionals, or even more profound changes in profession identity and ethos should be expected.

However, it is important to observe that changes may be much more complex. Along with NPM, the public sector has been hit by a true reform wave. In many respects, NPM still seems to be going strong, having a large impact on the work and professional identity of the employees within the welfare sector. Simultaneously, however, other developments occur. For example restructuring, quality reforms, LEAN, etc., are interacting with and perhaps in some cases counteracting the principles of NPM. Part of the picture of the changing Nordic welfare sectors in the last decade is large-scale reforms induced by politicians attempting to integrate different types of welfare work and facilitate crossfunctional cooperation. Further, focus on technological innovations in service provisions is increasing. Moreover, since the financial crisis the consistent focus on reducing and savings in the public sector is an important feature (e.g., Christensen & Lægreid, 2011).

Altogether, this variety of more or less independent traits of development creates an impression of an increasingly complex context for work that the employees have to deal with, combine, or prioritize between, as part of their daily working life. …

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