All industrialized or post-industrial societies consider themselves to be working societies. Work – or more precisely, gainful work – defines an individual’s worth and status. It is for most people the main means of earning a living and frequently the prerequisite to be eligible for social security coverage. Unemployment endangers the livelihood of the unemployed individual and, possibly, also that of his or her family. It is the most important cause of poverty and is also frequently associated with problems such as crime, right-wing extremism, suicide, and illness. Therefore, unemployment is a principal social and political challenge.
Usually, the unemployment of individuals with low education is markedly higher – generally by a factor of 2 to 4 – than that of highly qualified workers. Often, the unemployment of younger and older workers is also above average. Marked gender differences can be perceived in continental European countries, where women’s unemployment is often significantly higher than men’s, while there are hardly any gender differences in Anglo-Saxon countries with their liberal labor markets or in the Scandinavian countries with their greater emphasis on gender equality. In most cases, ethnic and racial minorities suffer significantly higher unemployment rates than the native-born majority.
Persistent unemployment on the societal level is frequently associated with the concepts of underclass and exclusion. The term underclass was coined by Gunnar Myrdal and describes a social group that is even below the ”working class” and thus cut off from mainstream society; in American inner-city ghettos this tendency is exacerbated by spatial segregation (Wilson 1987). The term underclass was also used to ascribe to people certain traits such as the inability to work due to a lack of skills or the unwillingness to work due to certain values and attitudes; its use in sociology is therefore controversial. The term exclusion plays a bigger role in Europe. Here, unemployment by definition damages the ”social contract”. In critical perspective, the term is used to indicate that contemporary capitalism offers fewer and fewer opportunities to participate socially, especially for the ”less productive.”
Unemployment is frequently explained by the transition of capitalist societies to post-industrial and post-Fordist economies. Technological changes lead to a continual rise in productivity so that one frequently talks about ”jobless growth.” In a global world capital becomes more mobile; as some jobs are ”exported,” new jobs are created. Firms increasingly act as multinational or transnational enterprises and work is distributed over many countries and linked by computer networks. The outcomes of these developments for national labor markets may vary considerably between countries. Yet it is obvious that the European economies, based largely on medium- and high-skilled jobs, have to increase their investments in human capital substantially if they do not want to lose ground and if they want to maintain their higher levels of equality. Also, inclusion of women in the labor market is still lagging considerably behind many Western European countries. At the same time, it may be increasingly necessary to loosen the hitherto tight connection between paid work and entitlements to welfare benefits, as job insecurity most likely will continue to grow and episodes of unemployment will be part of the life course of many individuals for the coming decades.
- Wilson, W. J. (1987) The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
- Andersen, J. G., Clasen, J., van Oorschot, W., & Halvorsen, K. (eds.) (2002) Europe’s New State of Welfare: Unemployment, Employment Policies and Citizenship. Policy Press, Bristol.
- Gallie, D. & Paugam, S. (eds.) (2000) Welfare Regimes and the Experience of Unemployment in Europe. Oxford University Press, Oxford.