The mantra of growth has been at the core of the Western welfare state for decades. Mainstream parties across the spectrum still see further growth with its allure of jobs as essential for providing social security. When the nature of work is transforming and the environment is in crisis, how can we ensure that welfare systems are inclusive and respectful of our planet’s limits?

Green European Journal: Welfare states were a design of the second half of the 20th century and much of our economic, social, and administrative systems are still anchored in that model. What is the relationship between growth, jobs, and welfare state?

Max Koch: The welfare models founded after the Second World War were built on growth. At its core, it was a class compromise between mostly white, male, and middle-aged trade unionists and white, male, and middle-aged employers. That picture is representative of most Western countries. It was an exchange wherein managers dictated how things were produced – a model often associated with so-called Taylorism. This model of production led to the deskilling of much of the shop floor and the concentration of skills among management. In return, wage earners benefited from the huge step forward in terms of productivity, which made it possible for working time to be reduced and welfare systems to be introduced or expanded.

This whole arrangement took place in the context of a Europe shattered by the Second World War, which meant there was a huge appetite for mass-produced goods such as cars, refrigerators, televisions, and so on. This was indeed a historically unique combination: full employment of a (mostly male) workforce and plenty of demand for mass-produced goods. This situation put trade unions in a comparatively good position; with full employment you can demand relatively good wages. Statistically, in some core countries, wages went up by 10 per cent in the 1950s and 1960s, which is unheard of these days. Capital made profit and labour earned a good wage. On the back of this prosperity, the nation-state used its increasingly high tax revenues to finance, among other things, the welfare state as we know it.

Jean Lambert: The Cold War context is interesting because, for many Greens, at least in the United Kingdom, it was the background for a strong critique of the growth-based economy. This model served not to meet people’s needs but rather to ‘feed’ an economy. In the European Parliament, you still hear this narrative, even from the conventional Left, that assumes that growth and productivity automatically lead to the general well-being of society. There is far less discussion than you might expect about how to share what we already have. Before the 2008 crash there was a political debate taking place around topics such as ‘beyond GDP’ and social justice, but today we have lapsed back to a conventional growth and jobs conversation, despite knowing that growth no longer necessarily leads to jobs and hasn’t done for a considerable period of time.

Max Koch: The ideas of being treated when you were ill (in some cases for free), of having holidays, and of the right to unemployment insurance – all this was new after the Second World War, and is surely something worth defending. These advances did not come out of the blue; they were hard fought for by trade unions and social democratic parties, and indeed made possible by the Cold War context (in which Western wage earners almost by definition had to be better off than their colleagues in the East). The stability that existed between capital and labour is gone nowadays. The movement of capital is much more flexible in geopolitical terms. Capital is more often financial, uses tax loopholes, and takes less often the industrial form of factories and plants in which it is fixed for a long period of time. During the post-war period, if you were to put money in a car factory, for example in South-Western Germany, you’d keep it there for 20 years until the capital was amortised. That stability explains the strong historical and contextual link between welfare, jobs, growth, and the state.

Our welfare was always a privilege of the few, and that has not changed.

Due to planetary and ecological limits, this growth-dependant welfare compromise was not and is not generalisable to the rest of the world. It has nevertheless been portrayed in Western discourses as a model that could be adopted anywhere. From the beginning, the rich countries of the OECD used up a disproportionate share of energy and produced a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gasses. Our welfare was always a privilege of the few, and that has not changed.

What about work outside of the realm of what the welfare state recognises as ‘employment’?

Max Koch: With the post-war class compromise came a certain ‘employment standard’: full-time work, usually done outside the home and at particular times, hence a formal separation of work and non-work. Many of the current discussions about care work, redistributing necessary social time, and a broader definition of work refer back to these days and deal with what a new employment and work standard could look like.

Jean Lambert: There is still a discourse around the preservation of jobs being more important than anything else. You see this in some of the discussions about jobs in the coal sector, jobs that are clearly damaging to the planet and potentially to health, but yet there is still a desire to protect them. Work is important in terms of identity and because of ‘social order’. Work allows society to be traced, taxed, organised and came to form the basis for our value judgments about others. You see this in some countries in the rise of hate speech targeting people with disabilities for being a cost to society, or questioning whether they really are unable to work.

Jobs signal social value in many ways. Some seeds of change can be found in areas like gender budgeting or the movement around wages for housework. There is an interesting discussion to have on whether to shift to putting a financial value on every task that’s done or whether to start looking at what contributes to society. In that sense, the primacy of the world of work is leading us more and more into issues of gender politics and is used by many populist and right-wing movements.

What different kinds of welfare state are there in Europe? Do any consider or factor in sustainability?

Max Koch: One influential perspective from which to compare welfare states is the evolution of how states intervened in capitalist markets. The emerging European welfare states allowed sections of their society to live without having to sell their labour power. Hence, it became increasingly possible for unemployed and sick or disabled people to live without having to work, and for students to study, and so on.

Through a comparative lens, you’ll find Anglo-Saxon countries with a liberal tradition and a relatively weak state and trust in the market at one end of the spectrum and Scandinavian countries with a strong tradition of state intervention at the other end. Gøsta Esping-Andersen related these differences in institutions to the relative strength of the working class and working-class parties. Interestingly, the Nordic welfare state model is dependent on full employment in the rather traditional sense. The idea is that people have to work a lot and for many years so that their relatively generous welfare systems can be sustained. Despite this, we haven’t yet seen much revaluation of work in countries such as Sweden. In the middle of the spectrum, you’ll find what you might call the conservative welfare regimes, of which Germany is the archetype. Later researchers added a Mediterranean model and have started to discuss how Eastern European countries may fit in the welfare typology.[1]

We have no alternative but to look for new ideas and imaginaries of welfare and social inclusion in the absence of growth.

Regarding environmental sustainability, although some scholars hoped that the social-democratic countries of Scandinavia would also perform best in terms of ecological sustainability, we could not confirm this in comparative research. For example, Norway is one of the countries with the highest ecological footprint of them all. Sweden’s is relatively low in part because of the use of water power, which not all countries can generate. Rather than to welfare regimes, the level of GDP per capita is strongly linked to the environmental performance of a country: the richer the dirtier, so to speak. So there isn’t much synergy between welfare and sustainability at the moment, which also serves as an argument against the idea of ‘green growth’. We don’t have any empirical evidence that economic growth can be absolutely decoupled from material resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. As emphasised by the degrowth movement, we have no alternative but to look for new ideas and imaginaries of welfare and social inclusion in the absence of growth. If we care about the welfare of other people and future generations instead of just our own, the priority of growth in policy-making cannot be upheld.

The concept of sustainability isn’t limited to ecological considerations – isn’t there broader social aspect?

Jean Lambert: To have welfare and sustainability, either together or separately, you need social security. So far Europe’s social security systems are based on employment insurance schemes. Many people make the valid criticism that our welfare systems are too complex. With each attempt to twist existing systems to adapt them to different groups, new realities, and changing patterns of work, the systems become more complex. If you work in the gig economy or with several short-term contracts, you’ll lose virtually all of the insurance you would be entitled to the minute you take up paid work. That can be the case even if it is just for a week or is project or task based.

The changing world of work questions the coupling of state safety nets to traditional work patterns and sectors. The idea of basic income is starting to gain more traction in some places because systems designed to step in at times of crisis, such as traditional unemployment insurance, no longer match work patterns. Some people claim basic income brings additional ecological benefits. I’m not totally convinced about basic income nor its environmental benefits. People may consume less because they have less but it doesn’t mean that their basic needs are being met. First of all, the amounts usually put forward in proposals are too low to live decently on. Second, is the money dimension the only one we need to think about? To redesign welfare and social security systems, we need to look at the assumptions we make on how societies operate, including work patterns but also family and life trajectories which have changed dramatically even since the second half of the 20th century. But the basic income debate at least starts to give you some ideas about how to decouple work, welfare, and wealth.

Two actors stand at the centre of conversations about welfare and sustainability: trade unions and green movements. How can they work together to achieve the transition our society needs?

Max Koch: It is important not to talk about trade unions as though they were a monolithic movement. The biggest German trade union, IG Metall, has just made a collective agreement that allows their rank and file the choice to go down to 20 hours a week. The German Trade Union Confederation has been speaking about the ‘good life’, much in the same vein as in green or even degrowth circles. There is probably more common ground there between Greens and trade unions than we might think. Of course, you also have a certain diversity between different Green parties as well. To counter the at times short-sighted and parochial trade unions and their political acolytes, the green alternative should be about meeting human needs within ecological limits and with a universal and intergenerational perspective. To achieve such solidarity, we would need to campaign for a new division of labour of income, wealth, work, and pollution rights – and to forge ‘eco-social’ policies that tackle inequality and climate change whist removing GDP from its main priority position.

Jean Lambert: To achieve the decent work agenda you also need to tackle the ecological side of the equation. The European Trade Union Confederation and its institute are quite advanced in that regard. Interesting and necessary processes are moving forward, as with the Just Transition process led by the International Trade Union Congress and the International Labour Organization or, within the EU, with the British Trade Union Congress. Of course, there is resistance from particular unions from certain sectors and countries and the same applies to the business side of the picture. Business Europe, for example, is disastrous on many issues when it comes to climate and circular economy, but there are plenty of businesses that actually recognise the need to properly address climate change in a sustainable way.

Transition shouldn’t be something that ‘those Greens’ are forcing you to do.

Beyond institutions, a key thing about the necessary green and social transition is engagement with the workforce themselves. You should feel as though you’re in control of this, that you’re making the changes, you’re part of something, and it’s happening with you. Transition shouldn’t be something that ‘those Greens’ are forcing you to do; it should be something that you’re actively doing because you see that there are benefits to your own life, planet, and children.

How can Greens sell limits or green jobs to voters, including the working class, when people have heard for the last 60 years from every single political force that there will be more jobs, with little attention paid to which jobs they would be?

Jean Lambert: Increasingly there is a group of people that Greens don’t speak to and don’t try to speak to. This has opened up a space for populists to say that “Greens aren’t interested in people like you.” The Green approach could explain that many people are in jobs which can make a positive difference to quality of life in the world – for instance, a street cleaner. Green jobs are about limiting the damage to our planet and society, and those limits are there for everyone. Given the need to stay within those limits, we need to give more dignity to particular jobs that contribute to this. It’s not so much about the value of your work but the value in your work.


[1] “Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism or More? A State-of-the-art Report”, Arts, W. and Gelissen, J., Journal of European Social Policy 2002 vol. 12 no. 2 137-158.

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