Misery of being a jobless Brit

Welfare Regimes and the Experience of Unemployment in Europe
November 10, 2000

The devastating impact of unemployment and poverty on the fabric of society quite rightly dominated social policy debate during the last two decades of the 20th century and continues to do so. Our understanding of the way that this economic aberration has scarred the lives of individuals, families and communities owes much to sociological inquiry into the "experience of unemployment", and this latest major study breaks new ground in the academic discourse.

Sociological analysis of unemployment is not a new academic phenomenon, but the discipline itself has ebbed and flowed in line with the economic cycle. As highlighted in the opening chapter of this book, unparalleled levels of unemployment in the 1930s triggered the first major inquiries of this kind. However, relative economic prosperity in the postwar period, and the resulting push towards full employment, led to a welcome pause in the need for further development of this particular sphere of sociology.

Not surprisingly, the resurgence of mass unemployment in the 1980s saw research in this area renewed and Duncan Gallie, one of the editors of this study, has been a leading light in the field. He is one of the editors of Social Change and the Experience of Unemployment (1994), which drew on surveys of the unemployed in six parts of the UK, graphically highlighting the adverse impact of joblessness and impoverishment on their social relationships and psychological health.

In this study, Gallie and his French counterpart, Serge Paugam, compare experiences of unemployment across Europe by reanalysing a vast array of national data and drawing on a new data source, the European Community Household Panel. This is a large-scale comparative survey, administered by the statistical arm of the European Commission and, for the first time, allows researchers to analyse a wealth of genuinely comparative data on social exclusion across the European Union.

The main findings of this research programme provide invaluable insights for academics and policy makers concerned with unemployment and social exclusion, the dynamics between these two states, and the lessons for maximising the effectiveness of governments' policy measures. While small-scale qualitative research studies have partly illuminated this complex interplay in the past, there have been relatively few analyses with a transnational perspective. The strength of Gallie's study is that it admirably fills this gap in the literature and, more importantly, provides an insight into how welfare regimes and cultural differences between countries have vital implications for how individuals experience a world without work.

The starting point for Gallie and Paugam is that although some common features exist, the distribution of unemployment among the populace of European countries differs considerably, especially when one looks at the risks of unemployment by gender and age. Accordingly, they say, "these differences point to the need to analyse the experience of unemployment not as something homogeneous, but as a phenomenon that takes place within particular economic, social and political structures and which, because of this, may have a different dynamic within each national culture".

In basic terms, the research methodology underpinning the analysis focuses on negative impacts of unemployment in three main areas: living standards, marginalisation from the labour market, and social integration.

Reflecting this, the book is divided into three sections, each containing a number of papers and generating a wealth of data and analyses about lifestyles of the unemployed.

Although the title of the book might suggest that the main focus of the research is the effect of national welfare regimes on the experience of unemployment, equal attention is paid to other factors, especially the influence of family and community relationships in mitigating social exclusion among the jobless. This reflects the growing debate in recent years about the exact definition of social exclusion and a general move towards looking at the interplay of a wider range of causative factors, instead of focusing solely on "income level snapshots".

Including a measure of social isolation in this latest study is crucial, because it leads the authors to conclude that, while welfare regimes play a central role in reducing financial deprivation, this is only one element of the "social exclusion jigsaw". An overall social exclusion league is devised by estimating the proportion of unemployed people in each country who are judged to be experiencing both poverty and social isolation. For example, using this methodology, Gallie and Paugam conclude that France and Germany, with about average levels of unemployment benefit, have a higher incidence of social exclusion than nearly all countries with the least generous benefit systems. According to this analysis, many of the countries with the most minimal benefit payments (eg the southern European states) have a lower incidence of social exclusion, largely on account of the tradition of strong family and community ties, which act directly to combat social isolation among the unemployed.

The one exception to this is the UK, which has the ignominy of topping the "social exclusion league", along with France and Germany, and also having the highest level of poverty (measured solely on income levels) among the countries involved in the survey. The authors conclude that "the unemployed in the UK emerge as the most severely marginalised in terms of their financial situation, accompanied by high levels of financial pressure and very poor living conditions".

Admittedly, the survey is largely based on comparative data from before the election of the Labour government and it does not provide any insight into the impact of the change in policy in the UK since 1997.

However, it does underline the scale of the challenge facing the government in reversing the trend of the past two decades when "the situation of the unemployed deteriorated sharply in the UK" compared with other countries, largely as a result of policies designed to reduce benefit entitlement.

Part of the philosophy underpinning this policy in the 1980s and 1990s in the UK was that the jobless needed stronger financial incentives (ie less benefit) to encourage them to take up low-paid jobs in the UK's flexible labour market. One of the major achievements of this study is to highlight the utter failure of this strategy and to illuminate the high degree of impoverishment and misery imposed on families blighted by unemployment in the UK compared with their counterparts in other European countries.

Its other major achievement is to dispel many of the labour market myths bandied about by those intent on undermining the European social model and replacing it with a US-style social welfare model. One of the study's key findings is to confirm how continental European welfare regimes were instrumental in preventing unemployment being translated into widespread poverty and inequality, in direct contrast to the UK experience.

Furthermore, the researchers found no evidence to support the assertion that unemployed people in those countries with the most generous unemployment benefit payments were prone to reduced motivation in looking for work. In some respects the opposite was true. For example, unemployed people in Sweden and the Netherlands (two countries with good records in minimising poverty through the benefit system) "showed greater flexibility with respect to pay and geographical mobility than the British".

The book also highlights how these two welfare systems are underpinned by substantial investment in both active labour market programmes and public childcare provision, and that this plays an important role in preventing marginalisation from the labour market for all jobless people, and women in particular.

There is an illuminating paper comparing the vast gulf in the employment rates of lone mothers in Denmark with the UK (the two countries with the greatest incidence of lone motherhood) - nine out of ten lone mothers in Denmark were in work, compared with less than half in the UK.

It is significant that those welfare regimes that were most effective in preventing poverty among the unemployed and reintegrating them into the labour market occurred in countries where national policy making was strongly underpinned by social partnership arrangements involving trade unions. The study shows that the influence of trade unions in enhancing the quality of employment in the wider economy also had an impact.

This was most evident in Sweden, where the quality of lower-level jobs open to the unemployed was relatively high - one reason why Sweden was the only country where the experience of unemployment did not appear adversely to affect future job prospects.


John Monks is general secretary, Trades Union Congress.

Welfare Regimes and the Experience of Unemployment in Europe

Editor - Duncan Gallie and Serge Paugam
ISBN - 0 19 828039 4 and 829797 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00 and £18.99
Pages - 412

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