European Welfare Systems and Changing Work Technologies

I attended eHomemakers’ Work-Life Balance Conference last week and listened to speakers from around the world discuss the tenets of work-life balance. 

In general, participants looked to European countries as models for the work-life balance they would hope to implement in Malaysia. 

They argued this is the future. 

This choice of an idol, however, made an easy target for critics, who claimed the European system was unproductive and inefficient.  As evidence, they pointed to the crises facing the European economies and threatening these half-century old social democracies.  

Both proponents and opponents were making a fundamental mistake, however, in equating the European-style social system with the fundamental changes that are occurring in the way people work.   Both of these subjects certainly affect work-life balance and alter people’s work environments. 

The European social system subject pertains to politics and decisions on how to distribute resources already created. 

These societies have already accrued a large amount of wealth or are producing more per individual than each needs. This excess stock of wealth is then used to support their welfare system, allowing people to work fewer hours.  

This system does not substantially affect productivity in these countries.  In fact, the causality runs in the opposite direction from what is supposed by critics of the European system.  It is really the productivity of the workers in Europe that has allowed them to maintain their welfare state.

The fundamental changes in work environment, however, are far more economic in nature and go beyond any specific governing policy. 

New technology is fundamentally changing the way people work.  Throughout the majority of human history, man (and woman) lived and worked close to home. It wasn’t until the late 18th century with the onset of the industrial revolution that humans began to travel substantial distances to work. Large factories necessitated the movement of labor for proper coordination to increase productivity.  

The advent of new computer systems and communications networks are changing the situation once again, allowing for work coordination across larger geographic distances. 

In a way, this is a very Marxian argument, much in line with the dialectical materialism, which claims the technology and capital we use to work defines our society. 

If the plow gives us the Feudalism, and the steam engine Capitalism, then the computer gives us the Home Based Capitalism (I could probably think of a better name).  This shift does not really directly affect the amount of time people work, but changes the location of work.  Considering that more business are adopting these employment structures, it also making workers more productive.

In recent years, the European social systems have come under increasing stress from both the changing demographic situation in Europe and globalization.  

Populations are growing older, and jobs are moving to cheaper geographies.  

These challenges and the resulting problems to the system are what people actually note, when they cite European productivity problems.  

The other issue focuses on how people work. If there is a connection it is that the very technological forces, which are driving globalization and hence destabilizing European welfare systems, are also driving the changes in the work environment. 

In both cases, geography is becoming of less and less importance, as jobs move to new locations.


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