It's work, Jim - but not as we know it

Ralf Dahrendorf argues that the government's welfare reform policies may be undermined by a revoluti

I accept the principles behind this government's attempts to change the welfare state. But there may be one big flaw in the thinking. Everything is regarded as fluid - as either changing or in need of change - but one area of social reality is quite often, at least by implication, regarded as constant. That's the world of work. There are quite significant changes in the labour market and these are highly relevant to any policy of equality, or as I prefer to put it, of inclusion. They may be summarised in six statements.

1. Since the early 1970s the relationship between GDP growth and employment has become tenuous in all OECD countries. Considerable increases in per capita GDP were accompanied by little or no employment growth. In Japan, from 1970 to 1995, GDP per head grew by 150 per cent, employment by only 2 per cent. In the UK, which was fairly typical of Europe, GDP per head grew by just under 60 per cent, while employment ended 4 per cent down. Even in the US, where the connection between growth and employment remains, as is well known, positive, per capita GDP grew by just over 50 per cent, employment by 25 per cent. Thus there is at least a prima facie case for the thesis that we have experienced a period of jobless growth.

I believe, therefore, that we have to change our economic language. We can no longer assume that GDP growth equals employment creation. And this is an argument for abandoning GDP as the one-dimensional indicator of economic success or failure.

2. There is evidence of significant divergences between the traded and non-traded sectors of the labour market - for example, between financial services and healthcare. In the traded sector, expansion is generally accompanied by employment contraction; a higher output of goods and services is achieved with less labour. The non-traded sector, on the other hand, provides, in principle, unlimited opportunities for work.

The important point here is that jobs do not materialise automatically from favourable macro-economic conditions for GDP growth. On the contrary, they may contribute to a decline in jobs.

3. In all OECD countries, there has been a significant decline in the number of people in typical employment relationships: full-time permanent jobs (or, more precisely, full-time dependent employment without built-in time limits). The most thorough study of this change is that by a recent German commission. It concludes that "in countries where the employment rate has changed little, about a quarter to a third of typical employment relationships has been replaced by atypical ones since the 1970s". In western Germany, 84 per cent of those in dependent employment had typical contracts in 1970; by 1995, this proportion had gone down to 68 per cent with a particularly steep decline in the early 1970s and again in the early 1990s. If one includes the self-employed, those on employment schemes and the job-seeking unemployed, less than half of the employable population in European OECD countries is today in typical employment relationships.

My comment is that we have already learnt to think in new ways about the family: we no longer assume that the nuclear family is the only model. It is time to make a similar leap of understanding with respect to jobs and employment. What used to be typical is about to become a minority phenomenon.

4. The new forms of employment, which have grown in importance, include, above all, part-time work, limited-term jobs and contract employment. There are also home workers; those on employment schemes of one kind or another; paid self-employed workers; and some other categories for which we have barely found a proper description. In addition, there is a vast array of not-for-profit, or rather not-for-gain work, much of it in the third, or voluntary, sector.

This proliferation of kinds of work requires us to rethink many aspects of social policy. A welfare system based on typical jobs leaves people who work in the new categories uncared for. Tax and benefit systems need to be adapted. Methods of guaranteeing everybody a basic income through tax credits or otherwise become irrelevant.

5. Since the end of the second world war we have seen a huge decline in the role of paid employment of all kinds in people's time budget. Longer education, shorter working hours, more generous holiday entitlements, earlier retirement - all these accompanied the economic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s. Since 1970 we have seen two further developments. One is the frequency of portfolio living - or what might be called "women's pattern of life" - which combines employment and other activities. The other is the growth of ever earlier retirement at a time of rising life expectancy. The number of hours worked annually by the whole population has declined in most European OECD countries by 20 per cent since 1970. Retirement figures are even more dramatic. In the UK only 56 per cent of all 55 to 64-year-old men were in paid employment in 1995. The corresponding figures for Germany were 49 per cent; for Italy 42 per cent; for France 38 per cent.

These are figures of major significance. They show that universal social benefit systems can no longer be built on contributions from those in paid employment. They also show that work in the sense of paid employment loses much of its force as a source of satisfaction, of self-realisation and of social identity. More importantly still, work ceases to be an effective instrument of social control. How will people's time be structured in future?

6. Such changes in the world of work imply changes in the nature of unemployment. To be sure, there are still genuine problems of long-term unemployment. In the UK, in some inner-city areas, there are a large proportion of households without employment. Many no doubt, particularly single-parent families, need attention. But for many, unemployment is a phase between jobs, even an opportunity for alternative activities, including unfortunately, but tellingly, benefit fraud. "Total and helpless" unemployment as Beveridge described it in 1909, and as many countries experienced it in the 1920s and 1930s, and as most countries fought it in the 1950s and 1960s, may well turn out to be a peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon. It did not exist before, because people had alternative sources of survival, and it may not exist in future as new alternatives are discovered.

If the picture I have tried to sketch in these six points is largely correct, important policy consequences are indicated: for example, a reorientation of macro-economic policy towards jobs in the non-traded sector; the transportability of entitlements; a new approach to paid employment, other life activities and the sources of people's income and well-being.

Last March a group of 11 business and trade union leaders, as well as academics, wrote a letter to the Times. The implicit assumption of the government's reform policies, they wrote, was that the labour market will in the future provide the scale and type of employment required to support a shift from public to private provision. Yet we are also witnessing a revolution in the world of work, the longer-term implications of which are subject to speculation and controversy. What was needed, they argued, was a commission to pull together all the material that exists on the future of work and paid employment. Commission or not, I agree that the subject is of major importance and needs more consensus on facts as well as more debate on the consequences.

This is an edited version of a talk originally given last year at an 11 Downing Street seminar and now published, price £9.95, in "Equality and the Modern Economy", the first of a series from the newly launched Smith Institute, 191 Victoria Street, London SW1E 5NE