The Transformation of the Idea of a Full Employment to a Flexibility Discourse in European Comparison

Director: Bo Stråth

Aim and Scope

This project's focus is on the transformation of the full employment convention to the flexibility discourse. It was conceived as a four year venture and began in January 1997. The approach is not centered on the unemployment issue per se, but on the conceptual and interpretive adjustment of societies in Europe to the dramatic structural changes taking place in the labour market. Questions raised concern the role that the historical and cultural heritage of the full employment convention has played in different national settings. Additionally the redefinition of the obligations of the state, employer organisations and trade unions are examined. The period under consideration spans the 1960s to the 1980s. Of particular interest is the variation in terms of full employment conventions and in flexibility among European states. The extent to which a European level of problem resolution has been sought will also be considered, as will the question of whether - given the variation among the European countries - a kind of European pattern exists in demarcation to US labour market organisation.

The restructuring of labour conventions transcends labour markets. It is both an important aspect of current social transformation and an exemplary field for the rethinking of key conceptual orientations in social theory. This more general embedding of labour market development is considered in the project. The transformation of the idea of full employment to the flexibility discourse can, preliminarily, be seen as a process whereby wages, working-hours, and labour legislation, under social tensions, have been played off against one another in the quest for solutions to the problem of mass unemployment. The debate over working-hours, labour legislation and wages can be seen as a kind of symbolic representation of deeper social identity and solidarity patterns in rapid transition. A symbolic representation where the power relationships are often concealed and thus need to be laid bare. Questions concerning the connection between unemployment and wage work, and the socioculturally determined view of work are emphasised.

Activities during 1997 and 1998

A first workshop, of a brainstorming character, was organised at the RSC in March, 1997. Ten participants were invited to explore the problem and to discuss how to operationalise it. A group of six people, including the project leader, crystallised for the first phase (1997-1998) of the four-year period. The selection of cases (Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Sweden) was made, for this first phase of mapping out a varied European profile. A consensus was reached in which each contributor to the project agreed to employ a comparative methodology and thus analyse at least two countries in his/her research.

In May, 1997 a joint workshop was held with Professor Alan Milward on American welfare production and labour market organisation. The purpose of this workshop, which like the first one, was of a brainstorming character, was twofold: 1. to establish connections and very roughly define problem areas for the second phase of the project (1999-2000), i.e. the Europe-US comparison, and 2. To discern areas for a future large scale joint project with Professor Milward on the ongoing renegotiation of the social contract. Eight speakers were invited. The workshop was open and in all twenty people participated in the discussions.

A workshop on 15 and 16 May 1998, From the Idea of Full Employment to the Flexibility Discourse , organized as a follow-up of the 1997 workshop, dealt with the cultural and historical heritage of the full employment convention in different national and European settings and the significance of this heritage during the transformation to the language of flexibility. The roles of state, employer orginisations and trade unions were explored. A plurality of views on the concept of work in a long historical perspective were distinguished and problematised. One conclusion of this long historical perspective was that economic theories must be supplemented by other theoretical frameworks in the debate on changing labour markets. The extent to which a European level of problem resolution has been sought was considered. A publication, After Full Employment, based on the contributions is in preparation.

Within the framework of the project a seminar series extending from autumn 1998 through spring 1999, After Full Employment: European Norms and Discourses of Work, has been organised under the auspices of the RSC and the Departments of History and Law under the direction of Professors Karl Klare, Silvana Sciarra and Bo Stråth.

On 2 October 1998 a more methodologically oriented workshop Flexibility Between Risk and Stability was organised by Dr. Veronika Tacke, Bielefeld. The problem field of this workshop addressed was the connection between the flexibility discourse and the social symbolic construction of security. A theoretical point of departure was a critical demarcation to so called risk sociology. Questions dealt with risk as a political problem, flexibility as "weak" or "strong" ideology (Brunsson), and the historical dimension when "guarantees" against risks are constructed culturally. Alternative views to the perception of risk as determined by/a function of industrial society (Risikogesellschaft) were explored.