Over the past 20 years, the working world in Europe and the United States has undergone a sea change. Sociologists describe this phenomenon as the “growth of atypical employment arrangements” – or “alternative work arrangements” in US parlance. These arrangements are atypical because they hardly have anything in common with employment in the form most Americans and Western Europeans have known it since the 1980s.

That era of “regular jobs” – permanent salaried employment with a solid pension into the bargain – is now over. Since 1985, the proportion of workers on a full-time permanent contract has been steadily declining throughout Western Europe. According to a study by the Social Research Centre Berlin (WZB), it now appears that nearly one in four EU citizens works on a short-term, part-time or freelance basis.

Less money, more free time

In Western Europe, most of the new jobs created over the past ten years have been “atypical”. This trend has been most pronounced in the Netherlands, where the proportion of “atypical workers” came to nearly 43% in 2008. The figure for Germany jumped from 20% in 1990 to 37% in 2007. In Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, Great Britain and Austria, atypicals account for a quarter, even up to a third, of the workforce. They are not yet very prevalent in the new EU member states. But their share of the labour force in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, 16% and 13% respectively, goes to show it’s only a question of time before the sweeping changes in the working world hit the post-Communist countries, too.

Everything suggests that in future more and more people will be earning less money, but with more leisure time at their disposal in return. This nascent workaday world – and this is something that will soon become all too apparent – constitutes a real threat to those unable to find their place in it, but also holds out the hope of making people freer.

Flexicurity and citizen’s income

So what will work look like 20 or 30 years down the road? That question is not confined to our paycheques and our way of life, but is also about coming up with a definition of “work” that does not divide society up into “winners” and “losers”. There is an answer that might reconcile what seem to be mutually exclusive objectives: employers’ need to be able to lay off redundant workers and employees’ need for the security of a steady income. It’s called “flexicurity”. And it is in Denmark that the system works best. The laws there make it a cinch to fire employees, to be sure, but the latter need not fear subsequent freefall into a bottomless pit: the state guarantees them generous social benefits – provided, however, that they regularly attend professional retraining programmes. This model, which the European Commission is actively promoting, is also proving successful in the Netherlands.

And then there’s the idea of a “citizen’s income” in Germany, a radical initiative that is fuelling the debate. The idea is that paid work should no longer be the mainstay of social recognition and, consequently, the unemployed should no longer be stigmatised as the castaways of capitalism. Each citizen’s guaranteed income would supplant all his existing social benefits. Each citizen who is “involved” in society could draw this “salary”, whether or not he finds his niche in the labour market. But what should this “citizen’s work” look like in concrete terms? And how is such a programme to be funded? Economists are divided on these issues.