by Curtis Price
In the late 1980s, the Netherlands, like many European countries, was faced with long-term unemployment. Concern arose among Dutch policy makers that changing conditions were creating a U.S. style “underclass”: a mass of permanently unemployed dependent on state benefits, no longer able to re-integrate into the labor market, and forming pockets of concentrated urban poverty in Dutch cities. (Another unstated concern was worry about large scale civil unrest. This was the era of pitched battles between Amsterdam squatters and police, and just a few years after the Red Army Fraction and Red Brigades.) To investigate whether such an underclass was forming, a group of Dutch social scientists conducted extensive research focused on the two largest Dutch cities (Amsterdam and Rotterdam) and one smaller (Enschede). The results were later published in English as a book in 1993, Cultures of Unemployment: A Comparative Look at Long-Term Unemployment and Urban Poverty.
Much of what they found was not surprising. Many long-term employed ended up as “retreatists;” without money to keep up previous social connections, they withdrew, spending most of their time fighting boredom and watching T.V. or other passive pursuits, and only making token stabs at finding work. Another large minority conformed; they complied with welfare rules and actively sought out work. A smaller minority, the enterprising, looked for off the books income to supplement benefits and boost personal consumption and a similar minority, the calculating, used welfare benefits as a temporary means to some larger goal. In this last category fell many students, who could get more money by qualifying for welfare than through the lower living stipends from traditional student scholarships.
But the most interesting category of all, and one that surprised the researchers, was a group they dubbed the “autonomous” unemployed. These comprised less than ten percent of the long-term out of work, but the autonomous unemployed viewed welfare benefits as a right to a basic income and if it could be helped, had no intention of returning to the world of work. They kept minimum contact with welfare offices and willingly scaled back their needs to accommodate lower incomes as an acceptable trade off for having free time to develop themselves. As one “autonomous” respondent told researchers:
“With all the things I am able to do now, I feel much better than I ever did in any of those jobs I had. There is never a dull moment. Lately I have even started to think: would I actually have time for a job?”
Over half the autonomous category were older and disproportionately women, with low to average education levels and most had a prior work history. As the authors note, “the autonomous attached far less importance to the goals of work and consumption than other categories. Some of them went so far as to reject these goals. These were the cultural rebels who did not even want to consider a formal job or make use in any way of the formal channels for finding work.”
I remember meeting an anarchist in Amsterdam in the early 1990s who told me he had never held a job but survived off welfare benefits. Whenever he had to get certified with the welfare bureau and explain what efforts he had made to get hired somewhere, he told the caseworker he was too frail to work outdoors and psychologically, he was too stressed by office politics to take an indoor job. That “explanation” was enough to get him re-certified for another year, so loose were the requirements at that time. (However, he wasn’t purely “autonomous” but had a little of the “enterprising” qualities in him too, because he supplemented his income by working sometimes off the books as a piano mover.)
Like a stone-age tribe whose existence was wiped out by the march of “progress” and “civilization,” sadly it is unlikely that many of the “autonomous” exist among today’s Dutch jobless. In the past two decades, successive welfare “reform” – the term “reform” is always a bureaucratic clue that something is being taken away -– have sharply restricted access to benefits and a U.S. style retrenchment of the social service system mandating work requirements become the new norm, as is increasing low-wage, insecure work. What has happened to the autonomous unemployed is anyone’s guess, although a good number may have been lucky enough by virtue of the natural course of aging to get into the less restricted traditional retirement system before the cut-backs came.
(An earlier version of this review was published in The Sydney Realist, #32)