Towards a New Standard Employment Relationship in Western Europe

Published date01 December 2004
Date01 December 2004
British Journal of Industrial Relations
42:4 December 2004 0007– 1080 pp. 617– 636
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2004. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Blackwell Publishing Ltd.Oxford, UKBJIRBritish Journal of Industrial Relations0007-1080Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2004December 2004424617636Articles
Towards a New SER in Western EuropeBritish Journal of Industrial Relatios
Prof. Dr Bosch is Vice President of the Institut Arbeit und Technik [Institute for Work and
Technology], Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Towards a New Standard Employment
Relationship in Western Europe
Gerhard Bosch
This paper examines critically the concept of the standard employment relation-
ship (SER), differentiating between form and substance. It explores the social
functions served by the SER and its evolution in western Europe. Six major
causes underpinning changes in the employment relationship are explored and
the contours of a new more flexible SER developed. Two further social functions
are added: equal access for men and women to the employment system, and
increased internal flexibility in the workplace.
1. Introduction
When social scientists today debate the employment relationship of the tra-
ditional full-time core worker — the so-called standard employment relation-
ship (SER) — they speak almost exclusively of erosion and crisis rather than
of change. The predominant notion is that the SER of the past is breaking
up in favour of a diversity of non-standard, atypical employment relation-
ships that are no longer held together by any common bond, so that it no
longer makes any sense to assume that there is any dominant form of employ-
ment relationship. In his monumental work on the information society, for
example, Castells writes: ‘the traditional form of work, based on full-time
employment, clear-cut occupational assignment, and a career pattern over
the lifecycle is being slowly but surely eroded away’ (Castells 1996: 268). For
their part, Carnoy
et al.
(1997) see traditional employment forms being
replaced by ‘human capital portfolios’. Closer examination reveals, buried
within this debate on the crisis in the standard employment relationship, a
number of very different strands of argument, which can be summarized as
follows. First, it is maintained that the SER has declined in importance.
Second, it is predicted that the SER will decline further in significance in
future. Third, it is often suggested that the SER is not even worth defending,
British Journal of Industrial Relations
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2004.
for three reasons. One is that the SER, which has mainly been the employment
relationship of male breadwinners, is seen as an expression of paternalistic
power relations that have to be overcome. The second characterizes the SER,
because of its rigid regulations, as the most important obstacle to the free
play of market forces. And the third asserts that the rising generation is
no longer afflicted by its parents’ concerns with security, and actively seeks
greater flexibility in the world of work. Only a few contributors to the debate
et al.
2002; Bosch 2002) have examined the chances of the SER’s
survival or reconstruction, outlined starting points for the political action
that needs to be taken, and/or developed approaches to a new SER that would
be viable in the future.
These opportunities for shaping the future of the SER and developing new
norms for employment relationships are the subject of this paper. In order to
uncover these buried starting points for action, the various lines of argument
alluded to above need to be unpicked step by step. The fact that they are so
intertwined makes it very difficult to obtain a clear view of the overall situa-
tion. It is not sufficient to check the numerous statements of fact against the
findings of empirical research. The world of work is in such a state of upheaval
that statistical surveys on the diffusion of particular forms of employment
relationship merely provide snapshots of a moving object. In order to make
a film out of these snapshots — not necessarily with a happy ending but at
least with a comprehensible story — we have to get to grips with the forces
driving the change. Only then will we be in a position not only to consider
the future, but also to understand the causes of change and hence to identify
shifts in trends and points of intervention for political action. The interven-
tion that is proposed is a normative decision and not one that can be inferred
simply from the analysis. However, whether or not any opportunities for
action are revealed depends very much on the quality of the analysis.
I begin by attempting to outline what is actually understood by a standard
employment relationship and to identify the stabilizing elements, i.e. the
structures, that held it together in the past and were responsible for its being
regarded, at least for a long time, as
. The quantitative evolution of
the various forms of employment relationship in several countries is then
examined in Section 2. The country comparison reveals the existence of a
number of different standard employment relationships as well as very
contradictory developments and underlying causes. In Section 3 the various
causes of the changes in employment relationships and their effects on the
SER are examined. Finally, I conclude by outlining a possible model for the
creation of a future SER.
2. Definition and function of the SER
The traditional SER has been defined as a ‘stable, socially protected, depen-
dent, full-time job . . . the basic conditions of which (working time, pay, social
transfers) are regulated to a minimum level by collective agreement or by

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