Notes on “flexicurity”

I recently happened to read of the Danish social security model known as “flexicurity”, which seems at least superficially aligned with ideas like universal basic incomes but of which I was unaware when I wrote Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia. Flexicurity doesn’t quite address the question that I considered in that article since it is designed for a world in which people do actually have to work, but I thought it worth investigating here for what it might say about my current adventure.

As the Danish government explains it, flexicurity has three main elements: the ability for employers to hire and fire employees without much impediment; an employment insurance scheme through which workers receive a relatively good income during periods of unemployment; and state support for education, training and counselling programmes intended to assist unemployed people to find work.

I don’t propose to evaluate the success or otherwise of flexicurity here, but the model has at least superficial appeal in that it reaches for what I’ve seen referred to as employment security—meaning that workers can have a reasonable expectation of having some job— as distinguished from job security, in which workers can expect to remain in the same job. As the name suggests, flexicurity is intended to give employers the flexibility to shrink and expand their workforce according to their business needs, while providing employees with the security that they desire when faced with regular bills.

I’ve long suspected that proponents of “portfolio careers” and “flexibility” underestimate how much people value security when writing articles opining that we’re likely to have a dozen or more changes of career throughout our working lives. At face value it might seem both fun and enriching to be a computer programmer for a while, then a teacher, then a writer, and so on, but doing all that re-training is a lot of work and who is going to support you while you take a chance (or are forced) on a change of employer or career? So many if not most people settle for what seems like the more secure option of staying in the same job and career, and our notions of job security are built around this.

It also often seems to me as if many of the headaches surrounding topics like minumum wages, industrial relations, unemployment benefits and so on stem from the requirement that people support themselves through holding down a job. I’m told that no less than Milton Friedman advocated a universal basic income so that the labour market could operate like a normal market instead of the complicated mess of wealth-generation, welfare and income re-distribution that it is now. Flexicurity, I suppose, is the Danes’ version of this line of thinking, and may be the nearest thing I’ve heard of to a universal basic income being implemented in a real economy.

What goes on in Scandinavian countries doesn’t have much influence in Australia, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve only heard of flexicurity very recently despite the concept having existed for two decades or more. Scandinavia often seems some sort of semi-mythical place with an entertaining history of Vikings and positions in the top ranks in almost every league table of wealth and quality of life that I see, but rarely taken seriously as a guide for what could be achieved in English-speaking countries (Andrew Scott’s Northern Lights (2014) is one exception). As I read somewhere a long time ago, in fact, the Scandinavian countries ought to be basket cases according to the theories subscribed to by mainstream politicians in English-speaking countries. But the aforementioned league tables suggest that they’re not basket cases and I’ll pay more attention to flexicurity in future.

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