New welfare, new policies: towards preventive worker-directed active labour market policies?
Post based on an article from Journal of Social Policy
The last decade has seen an intensification of public, political and academic debates about the future of the welfare state, both within and beyond the countries of the European Union. Although the financial and economic crisis has strengthened the urgency of these debates, they date from well before the crisis. The transformation from an industrial into a post-industrial society and the rise of new social risks challenge the ‘old’ welfare architecture and are interpreted as requiring a ‘new’ welfare state, ‘new’ policies and ‘new’ forms of risk management.
One group of new social risks frequently discussed in the literature are risks related to labour-market changes, such as the increasing globalization and flexibility of the labour market; the constant and rapid changes in knowledge and, related to this, the risk that workers’ skills and qualifications become obsolete; and the increasing frequency of labour-market transitions, both between jobs and between jobs and periods of unemployment or non-employment. Labour-market changes also affect the risk of unemployment itself which, although it is an ‘old’ social risk par excellence, manifests itself in new ways in ‘modern’ labour markets.
Active labour-market policies that have been introduced in many welfare states during the last two decades are one example of ‘new’ policies that attempt to deal with new social risks as well as new manifestations of old social risks. These policies, however, are mainly aimed at people confronted with unemployment and therefore target groups already hit by unemployment in a curative way. In this article, we look at new approaches to the risk of unemployment that take a more preventive approach. In the academic literature on the future of the welfare state, the importance of a stronger focus on risk prevention in general and the risk of unemployment specifically is often emphasized, for example in literature on the social investment state, on flexicurity, and on transitional labour markets. Education is considered paramount in preparing people for more dynamic labour markets and in increasing their capacity to adapt to change. Furthermore, preventive approaches may promote employability and mobility and, thus, sustainable labour-market participation, and may support people in both voluntary and involuntary labour-market transitions over the life course.
An issue that is closely related to the introduction of preventive approaches to unemployment concerns what has been called pluralistic risk management: sharing responsibilities between the state, social partners and the collective agreements they negotiate, and (individual) firms in the private and public sectors and their human resource management policies. As preventive approaches to unemployment are focused on people in employment, it is argued that trade unions and employers not only should be involved in developing preventive policies, but will also be more likely to be committed to become involved.
Both issues – preventive approaches to unemployment and the pluralistic management of these preventive approaches – are elaborated in this article. We review the literature on the ‘new’ welfare state and the ‘new’ policies that are considered necessary, and use the Dutch case as an example to provide insight into the practical development of preventive approaches. The article argues that from a substantial point of view, curative active labour-market policies are very similar to what preventive approaches to unemployment should be focussed on: training and education, career guidance, support in labour-market transitions (in this case: work-to-work rather than unemployment-to-work), job mediation etcetera. Therefore, we think that a case can be made to consider these preventive approaches as preventive, worker-oriented active labour-market policies. However, both the literature and the Dutch experience suggest that the issue of pluralistic risk management is a far more contested and critical issue, specifically where the roles and responsibilities of the state, trade unions and employers in developing preventive approaches to unemployment are concerned. This issue raises important questions concerning the future debate about preventive approaches. What conditions are necessary to make pluralistic risk management feasible, for example where relations between the state, trade unions and employers are concerned? Isn’t the Dutch case a-typical in terms of the level of cooperation and coordination between these core actors and therefore an example of a ‘best practice’ that may be very interesting but simply cannot be transferred to other EU countries? And even when pluralistic risk management is able to gain ground in other countries, who are likely to benefit from preventive approaches to unemployment grounded in this type of risk management? Isn’t there a considerable risk that pluralistic risk management will be especially beneficial for ‘core’ groups of employers instead of the groups of workers that are most in need of support in promoting their employability and labour-market transitions: a-typical and flexible workers? In other words, isn’t there a considerable risk that these pluralistically `managed preventive approaches will strengthen rather than combat processes of segmentation and dualisation in the labour market?
Without claiming to provide any ‘final’ answers to these important questions, the article seeks to contribute to the debate about the potential risks and opportunities of developing preventive worker-oriented active labour-market policies; and specifically, about the responsibilities of the state, trade unions and employers in doing so.