What Comes After the Welfare State?
Is a new political philosophy emerging -- one that goes beyond the traditional welfare state on the one hand, and traditional free-market politics on the other?In laying the groundwork for a US-Danish exchange, I have posed this question to many Danes. The answer I heard in one office after another -- accompanied always by good coffee and impeccably designed furniture -- is definitely yes.A stress, however, must be laid on the word "emerging." This philosophy does not yet have a name, and it is not associated with a political party. It emerges more as a swirl of recurrent ideas than as a clearly formulated statement.Two themes capture a great deal of what I heard, though far from all of it. They are: a new vision of work, and a new vision of services. What's New About Work?The battle for wages, it seems, has been won. This is far from true in the US, where many families with two, three, or four jobs hover at or below the poverty line.But in Denmark, it is not just conservatives who say wages are generally high enough. Karen Siune, head of the recent Welfare Commission, echoed the same thought. Morten B¿dskov, president of the Danish Social Democratic Youth, said bluntly, "I think the wage question is basically settled." No one I met with disagreed.Instead, a new, exciting, vision of work seems to be evolving in which the primary focus is not increasing compensation but increasing the sense of fulfillment people get from their work. "If you look at how rich most people are here in our country," said Gunvor Auken, social advisor to the Danish General Workers' Union (SiD), "it's not the lack of money that forms the central issue for us today, it's the conditions for earning the money."People want respect in their work. They want to feel excited, energetic, creative. They want a deeper sense of personal gratification and social relevance.To be sure, Danes are still interested in more traditional standards such as job security, a safe workplace, and good wages. But more and more, people seem to call for what Peter Marstrand, author of the provocative book, New Renaissance (Ny Renaessance), calls "full and dignifying employment."Marstrand, whose political leanings are strongly conservative, put his finger on what people from across the political spectrum told me. "We need to move from a society where well-being is counted in material goods," he said, "to one where well-being is counted in the creative individual content of people's labor."How this model of employment would function -- particularly for factory jobs or garbage collection -- is the obvious question. AA practical answer may not be so difficult to find. Ole Busck, SiD's chief environmental officer, gave me two examples from these fields that corresponded remarkably well with Marstrand's desire to make jobs more gratifying and creative."We didn't invent recycling," Busck allowed. "But the union was a big factor in making recycling happen at the source." Garbage collectors, he said, were eager for more direct contact with their customers, more responsibility, and more sense of social involvement. "So when we pushed for recycling, we made it clear that it should be an opportunity for workers to have a better job, and to do something good for the environment. For workers, these were higher priorities even than wage increases." Today, Busck suggested, garbage workers have a greater sense that their jobs are developing, they take pride in their social role, and they are pleased with the increased opportunity to talk with their clients. In the fish-packing industry, Busck offered a different type of example. "When you give workers more responsibility, you find that many creative ideas come from employees." At Rahbek Fisk, he said, company management was under pressure from government and unions to reduce the number of employees suffering from repetitive stress syndrome caused by the quick, monotonous work pace.The solution Rahbek found was to increase the efficiency of production -- reducing waste water and getting more from each fish -- while reducing the speed of production.As interesting as the solution was the process by which Rahbek got there. Rather than hiring outside consultants, the company worked together with the unemployment office, the local folk high school, and the workers' council to educate workers.After a period of tense industrial relations, Busck reported, an exemplary process resulted. "Each person sat at a work station with a personal computer and made notes about how to improve production." When the recommendations were put into action, improvements were not only sensitive and exact, but they were also proudly and eagerly adopted by the workers who designed them.This new vision of work is appealing in large part because it is less alienating than the old. It draws on Max Weber's concept of work as Beruf -- a calling; and it taps into the way psychoanalysts such as Freud or Erik Erikson understand work as a means of self expression and self realization. Work, in this sense, is not just "a job" that somebody else "gives" you; it is a central part of how you give meaning to your life. What's New about Services?Social services came up in virtually every conversation in the course of my research. Often enough, cost was the concern people raised, and the deteriorating social consensus about paying that cost. But just below the surface lay a different type of concern."Of course we could afford what we have now and more, if we wanted to," Karen Siune told me. "But the problem is not just economic." In her estimation, the issue is a change in the culture. "People who don't really need it are being pushed into the welfare system too quickly. And it doesn't help them; it claims their identity." Siune and many others worry that Danes feel increasingly passive and entitled to have someone else take care of them. They worry that a caretaker mentality may stifle people's initiative and sense of responsibility for themselves."The image of services today that I carry around in my head," says Gunvor Auken, pushing onto her tiptoes and pressing her hands against imaginary glass, "is of people standing with their nose at the window looking into the social workers' office and asking 'What's going to happen in my case.'" Of her union, she says, "we're working hard to change that." A new type of thinking about services seems to be emerging that turns that image around. The new focus is on empowering people rather than taking care of them; viewing them as people with resources and not as "clients" with nothing but problems.From programs to reduce water consumption to efforts to prevent employee health problems to a growing number of self-help groups, I heard many examples of experiments designed to make people more active "co-producers" of the services they "consume."Pernille Brok -- a founder of Project Staerk og Dejlig, which helps single mothers in the Gellerup neighborhood of Aarhus -- outlined to me one example of what this type of approach would look like in practice. "Instead of telling the young mothers what to do," Brok said, "we asked: Is there anything in your life that you don't find satisfactory?" "The women are not stupid," she continued. "They knew something about what would make their lives better."In some cases, it might be help to get job training. In others, it might be painting an apartment. It wouldn't necessarily be what a social worker would have first suggested. The goal, however, was not just to solve immediate problems. By identifying a problem and working out a way to overcome it, the idea was that women would gain a sense of control in their lives. In the process, they would overcome some of the barriers that prevented them from moving ahead in other aspects of their life. In the field of education, Gitte Madsen, director of information for the KaosPilots, talked about a similar shift in thinking. Students are too often led through a very carefully set series of predetermined classes, she suggested, without being asked to grapple with making their own decisions. "When someone else is taking care of all the issues in your life," she commented, "why do you need to take care of anything? People complain, 'I have this problem, how come now one is taking care of it,' instead of coming up with new solutions."I haven't seen the KaosPilots or Project Staerk og Dejlig closely enough to judge either's success in realizing these goals. But, what is clear is that their statements of the problem and the philosophy behind their solutions represents exciting new thinking about service delivery. At the same time, both Brok and Madsen voice a warning about the new approach. Although some politicians think the way to empower people is to cut services, and that doing so will save money, in fact, getting people to be able to take charge of their lives may take longer and involve more -- or better A recent evaluation of project Staerk og Dejlig, for example, showed that setting young women on their feet took from two to five years. "That's a long time," Brok noted, "much longer than it would take for 'treatment' of the problems."Toward a New PoliticsWork and services were not the only themes that pointed to a new way of thinking about politics. A changing role for business; an increasing sense of the importance of a strong nongovernmental sector; a desire for more personal participation in politics; new approaches to government regulation; and an evolving sense of how Denmark's place in a world of globalization, technological development, and environmental deterioration are among the many other areas where people are moving toward what sounds very much like a new, post-welfare-state paradigm. Some describe it as a "welfare society" instead of a welfare state. Others call it a new, post-welfare-era politics.Whatever it's called, this view seems to have an immediate resonance among younger people, while it also has supporters in all generations and all political parties.The conservative Peter Marstrand put it as no American conservative would. "We've achieved the welfare state exactly as we envisioned it," he declared flatly. "Now we need to move on to the next goal." What that goal will be, and how we achieve it, will be the basis for a fascinating US-Danish debate.David Dyssegaard Kallick is editor of the New York-based Social Policy magazine (www.socialpolicy.org).