Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i Articles i Research i Research 2012 i Unemployment can be defined away

Unemployment can be defined away

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén

The definition of employment and unemployment differs from country to country. A comparative historical perspective shows the political context - how the problem is presented and how its constituent parts change - steers our understanding. The standard views of employment are no longer relevant in countries like the US or France, according to social historian Noel Whiteside.

“The UK has for instance thrown its hands in the air and declared it no longer believes in standard employment. Any employment at all is called employment,” says Whiteside, who works at the University of Warwick.

In the transition to a deregulated labour market with people who are expected to employ themselves or be content with part time work and short contracts, unemployment has been defined away. In its place you find a system where low wages are subsidised through tax breaks. 

No common view

In the British context unemployment has been seen almost as a threat against industrial competitiveness, while in France it has become a political threat because it creates syndicalism and protest marches in the streets of Paris.

The common denominator is that all adults are expected to be active in the labour market, but that’s where the normative agreement ends. The question is how long should a working life last, from 18 to 64 or from 14 to 67? Should the working week be 4.5 or 6 days and how long should a working day last? How do you control the labour market - will people be allowed to act on their own or are they subordinated the system? Who’s responsible for further education?

“And what does early retirement mean, for instance? More than half of all French men over 55 are retired.”

Whiteside presents her views during a seminar at the University of Helsinki where Nordic researchers have gathered to discus how to define unemployment. The seminar is part of a cooperation financed by NordForsk in the framework of the Nordic Centre of Excellence NordWel: The Nordic Welfare Sate - Historical Foundations and Future Challenges.

The cutting edge research unit NordWel consists of research groups from eight Nordic universities and is administered by the Section of Social Science History at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. Nordic Labour Journal reported from their opening seminar in 2007. Pauli Kettunen, professor of political history and head of the network, is now entering the project’s sixth and final year.

Critical to new thinking

The historical perspective is very much present in the five theme groups which make up the network, and Kettunen says the researchers have found common ground through their critical approach to the tendency that social policies must be motivated by making economic sense. It is important to recognise social policies‘ positive economic consequences, but there is often a hidden agenda of reshaping social policies to become a means to achieve economic goals. 

“There is a lot of talk about social investments and that means you’re economising the motivations for welfare. In EU language there is talk about social policy as a productive factor.”

Many who do research on the Nordic welfare model - i.e. social safety and services, social patterns and shared normative value systems in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden - retain a long-term perspective. There are two different ways of discussing the model: in an historic context where the model is subject to challenges or the exit from the Nordic model as an answer to these challenges - economic competitiveness, social cohesion and shared risks.

“Very few criticise the Nordic model today. We’re talking more about differences in how it is being perceived.”

Focus on the welfare state

During Norway’s chairmanship of the Nordic Council of Ministers the welfare state is in focus.

Kettunen is keeping a critical eye on the Swedish Social Democrat’s attempts at linking the welfare model to their own brand by hanging on to the ownership of its development, despite the fact that it grew out of social and political conditions and through conflicts and compromises between political groups. 

”In Finland the welfare state has become a national political project. Powers that were not at all in favour of the welfare state before have now integrated it. The nostalgic welfare nationalism can be seen in Sannfinländarna (the “True Finns”) and in the other Nordic populist parties.”

The notion of welfare is being interpreted differently in different countries, even if researchers internationally agree on the definition. A book aimed at the American market is soon ready for publication within the framework of NordWel. ‘An American Dilemma? Race, ethnicity and welfare in the US and Europe’ looks at the different ways of thinking in Europe and the USA by carrying on from Gunnar Myrdal’s famous book on the ‘negro question’.

A different interpretation of welfare

“In the US welfare has connotations to young, black mothers living in poverty off welfare”, says Kettunen, and points to the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s allegation that Obama is promoting a European welfare state while he himself wants the individual American dream. US politicians, in other words, associate welfare with dependency while in Europe we see it as a way of creating opportunities for individual independence within working life or within the family. Another anthology on the Nordic model has been published in Chinese and there is a current series of Sino-Nordic seminars on welfare and labour market policies. Chinese doctoral students are also participating in a summer school run by NordWel this year in cooperation with REASSESS, the other Nordic cutting edge research unit on welfare research. 

There are now plans for different exit strategies for NordForsk’s NCoE Programme on Welfare Research which has been financing NordWel and REASSESS. Certain cooperation channels should be maintained.

Better than expected

“This has gone better than I’d expected and a lot of things have emerged which we find valuable, for instance when it comes to the education of researchers. Our annual international summer schools for doctoral students is one example of the activities for the education of researchers which we would like to see continue. Others include the younger researchers‘ own network WelMi (Welfare and Migration).”

The big differences between the Nordic countries’ research education has created practical problems for doctoral students who want to be mobile. 

Finland offers several types of financing but there are also doctoral students who do not manage to secure any financing. This means Finish doctoral students are more interested in being mobile compared to for instance their Norwegian fellow students. 

The international mobility of guest lecturers, postdoc researchers and doctoral students has in any case represented a very successful and central part of NordWel’s work.

Noel Whiteside

Noel Whiteside

Noel Whiteside is a British social historian. She works at the University of Warwick. 

Pauli Kettunen


Pauli Kettunen from Finland is a professor of political history. He heads the research network NordWel which is made up of research groups from eight Nordic universities which do research on the Nordic welfare model. 


Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment