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Researchers: Employment has become more important than job content

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Working life has been on the agenda during the Swedish general election campaign, and especially unemployment. More jobs are needed. Yet visions for the content of those jobs have not figured politically — an inconsistency highlighted by a group of researchers at a recent meeting in Stockholm.

“Those who award research grants no longer focus on the power structures and organisation of labour. Or like a group of working life researchers observed when we met the other day: ‘everyone knows that if you want money, don’t mention the word power and perhaps not even the organisation of work, in your application’,” said Åke Sandberg, Professor Emeritus and editor of the book ‘Nordic Light’, as he opened the seminar ‘Power and leadership in working life’.

The seminar was organised by the think tank Arena Idé and the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF). Judging from the busy Olof Palme hall in ABF’s central Stockholm headquarters, people are interested in discussing work in a deeper perspective. Around ten working life researchers threw light on the organisation of work, leadership trends, equality, “New public management” — an increasingly dominating management process within the welfare sector — flexibility as well as the challenges facing the Nordic model.

Unemployment has taken over

To illustrate how work development ambitions have changed over the decades, Åke Sandberg looked back in time. He started with the 1960s when the social partners worked together to develop a good work environment and productivity on a local level. In the 1970s trade unions were strong and there was talk about developing good jobs — having a nice time at work was no longer enough, there was a need to identify what made jobs good in terms of wages, opportunities for skills development and the importance of work organisation.  

“Since then we have seen a weakening of the trade union side of things, and unions are no longer at the forefront of developing new ideas. Unemployment has taken over as the important issue,” said Åke Sandberg.

Working life research has followed a similar development. The 1970s saw the growth of a strong research environment focusing on work and organisation. This was severely weakened with the closure of Sweden’s National Institute for Working Life in 2007. Yet now Åke Sandberg sees increased interest both at home and abroad for working life research and for studying companies and work based on the jobs’ content. He uses the Lisbon strategy as an example. Its first ten year strategy, published in the year 2000, aimed to make Europe more competitive and dynamic. It talked about ‘More and better jobs’. A 2005 strategy review only talked about more jobs. The EU programme for 2020 talks about more jobs and better lives. 

“Work organisation and issues surrounding power and influence in working life seem not to be priorities among those who finance working life research. Today’s focus is more on social issues and to some extent on medicin and health. Employers and trade unions struggle to agree that applied research should study power and influence. Unemployment perhaps is easier to study,” said Åke Sandberg. 

Nordic model: praised and challenged

One of the seminar’s major questions was how powerful the Nordic model still is, despite weakened trade unions, more non-secure jobs and benefits cuts. What is happening to people’s trust in the public sector and to being able to feel safe even during times of change in working life? The Nordic model is indeed praised for its ability to offer safety during life’s different phases, and for offering people the chance to change. But how much can the model’s individual parts be eroded before it can no longer be talked about as being unchanged? 

Åke Sandberg, who earlier this summer wrote an opinion piece for the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter called ‘The Nordic model can face the world’, says we should not forget that the Nordic countries top most world rankings, e.g. for equality, democracy in working life, environment, enterprise friendliness, IT and more. There has also been a certain reluctance to follow advice from certain international cheerleaders who say everything would be even better if only the Nordic countries cut taxes and red tape a bit more.

“But we haven’t gone for that, and we should be proud over what we have and carry it forward. We have a model that works, it is standing up to pressure from the rest of the world but it is changing somewhat,” said Åke Sandberg. 

The Danish term ‘flexicurity’ is often used to express the combination of safety and flexibility. But what happens to security when the number of non-secure jobs increase in most countries and when focus is more on the individual that the collective mass? Annette Kamp, a researcher at the Roskilde University RUC and a co-author of ‘The Nordic Light’, sees the danger of trying to export ‘flexicurity’ as a trend. It is a concept which is dependent on the context in which it exists, she said.

“Flexicurity is about finding a balance between safety and flexibility, but that balance has been weakened in Denmark through an erosion of safety. Meanwhile the term is still being used as if nothing has happened. But you need to be able to see when the imbalance becomes so great that talking about flexicurity makes no sense anymore. This means we need to talk about differences. If we don’t, we loose the measure of how the model works,” she said.

So how bright does the Nordic light shine? Is the Nordic model still an ideal and something people can learn from? Does it reach, say, all the way ‘down under’, to Australia? Yes, says Australian researcher Russell Lansbury, who was visiting Sweden during the seminar.

“The light is still there, but it is shining a little less brightly than before. In a radio programme I was asked to name the three best things about Sweden. I answered knowledge, the dialogue between the social partners and — perhaps somewhat surprisingly — globalisation. Sweden has always been looking beyond its borders and chosen export over protecting its domestic marked. Today’s weakness is the dialogue between the social partners. It’s still there, but seems to have lost some of its strength and depth which helped created today’s society,” said Russell Lansbury.



Nordic Lights portlett

'Nordic Lights. Work, Management and Welfare in Scandinavia' was published by the Centre for Business and Policy Studies (SNS) in 2013. The book’s authors, 25 working life researchers from Sweden, Denmark and Norway, describe how working life has changed and ask whether the Nordic experience still shows a working life where welfare, knowledge, dialogue and equality is possible. The book also explores power, leadership and control of working life — what are the trends, threats and opportunities?

Read more about the book here

Listen to the entire seminar at ABF Play 


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