Institute of Political Science

New Social Risks

Buchprojekt, finanziert vom Schweiz. Nationalfonds

Project Leaders

Klaus Armingeon
Giuliano Bonoli


2004 - 2005


The bulk of current research on the transformation of modern welfare states has focused on the issue of retrenchment and more in particular on how cash strapped governments have managed, or failed, to reduce the generosity of social programmes introduced during the postwar years. While this may be the most significant development going on in social policy, it is by no means the only one. Socio-economic change, usually described in terms of a shift from industrial to post-industrial economies and societies, has resulted in the emergence of new risk groups that clearly do not belong to the traditional clientele of the post-war welfare state and yet are experiencing major welfare losses. Over the last two decades or so, together with efforts aimed at containing the growth in social expenditure we have also seen the emergence of new policies catering for these social groups.

Risk structures have changed quite dramatically since the early post-war years. Trends in earnings inequality and labour market instability mean that today employment income alone is sometimes not sufficient to ensure a poverty-free existence, especially for families with children. Family instability, also on the increase, is on the other hand associated with a higher incidence of poverty, especially among lone parents. The risk of poverty is lower among the increasingly numerous two-earner couples, who are nonetheless facing entirely new problems and dilemmas in terms of reconciling work and family life. All these contingencies can be labelled ‘new social risks’ (NSRs) and refer to situations that are typical of the post-industrial labour market and family structures in which we live today. They have little in common except the fact that they are generally not well covered by the welfare states that we have inherited from the post-war years, and that they tend to hit the same social groups, especially younger people, women and those with low skills.

Today, new social risks are ubiquitous in western countries. The social transformations that have brought NSR into existence are progressing at different speeds in different countries, but overall, also because economic and cultural globalisation, they are having a massive impact in most places. The welfare states that we have inherited from the post-war years are gradually being adapted to the new emerging risk structures. However, the pace of adaptation and the degree of success vary across countries. Broadly speaking, the Nordic countries seem to have gone farthest in this process, by providing structures that facilitate the reconciliation of work and family life, by developing an arsenal of active labour market policies and a wage setting system that protect the incomes of low skill workers, and by operating inclusive pension systems and comprehensive elderly care service provision.

Other welfare states have generally speaking been less successful in this restructuring process. Even though awareness of the societal consequences of bad NSR coverage is mounting in conservative welfare states like Italy or Germany, these have taken only moderate steps if at all in the direction of better protection of NSR groups. However, even within this world of welfare provision, one can find some substantial differences. France, for instance, stands out as a country where reconciling work and family life is significantly facilitated by a large policy effort in the fields of child care, parental leave and so forth. Working mothers get generous pension bonuses that compensate for likely career interruptions. The long term unemployed, if numerous, can rely on several active labour market programmes. Finally, Liberal welfare states have long ignored the emergence of NSR which as a result are being covered mostly by market instruments, with big inequalities in terms of access and quality of services. Labour market related risks have been dealt with a strategy of strengthening work incentives, relying on both income supplements for low paid workers (such as the American Earned Income Tax Credit) and workfare programmes.

But cross-national variation is not the only puzzle one encounters when studying the emergence of policies that provide coverage against new social risks. What is also striking is the apparent incongruence between the political weakness of those who are hit by these contingencies and the fact that policies meant to improve their living conditions are adopted. The expansion of post-war welfare states was very much the result of the mobilisation of the would-be-beneficiaries of the social programmes adopted: the working class. Whether through Social Democratic or Christian Democratic parties and unions, wage earners were able to impose a welfare model where economic and social security for them was paramount (Esping-Andersen 1985; Huber and Stephens 2001; Korpi 1983).

Things are obviously different for the groups who are currently hit by NSR. First, unlike those of industrial workers, their material interests have little in common, and this is arguably a major obstacle to successful mobilisation. Middle class parents who find it difficult to reconcile work and family life are unlikely to join forces with low skilled unemployed youth. The fact that their problems were not being taken care of by post-war welfare states is hardly a sufficient motive for doing so. Second, NSRs tend to be concentrated among the young, women and those with low skills: all features that are associated with reduced political influence, whether in terms of political participation (Norris 2002), or of presence in representative outfits such as parliaments, cabinets (Siaroff 2000) and in labour movements (Ebbinghaus, Chapter 6). The power resources of those who are hit by NSR do not seem in any way comparable to those of the working class during the heydays of the post-war welfare state. Policies that provide coverage against NSR, to the extent that they are being developed, are unlikely to be the result of powering by NSR groups. The most NSR groups can hope for, under current circumstances, is to be targeted by vote-seeking politicians looking for opportunities for credit claiming.

The power resources of NSR groups alone cannot explain the development of post-industrial social policies. However, if this factor is considered together with other variables identified as determinants of social policy making by previous research, the predictive power of the model increases dramatically. The main claim made in this chapter is, that post-industrial social policies can be explained with the same independent variables that are known to have influenced the development of post-war welfare states: socio-economic developments, political mobilisation and institutional effects. There are nonetheless some important differences in the way in which these independent variables interact. Of crucial importance, for instance, seems to be the timing of the various relevant socio-economic, political and institutional trajectories followed by countries. Depending on it, national configurations of independent variables may be more or less favourable to the development of new social policies. As will be shown below, configurations of independent variables in relation to NSR policies have differed across welfare regimes, with the result that countries belonging to different ‘worlds’ of welfare capitalism have followed different trajectories. Before considering this explanation, however, the chapter presents a definition of NSRs and an attempt to map cross-national variation in the extent to which they are covered.


K. Armingeon, G. Bonoli (eds.), The Politics of Post-Industrial Welfare States. Adapting post-war social policies to new social risks, Routledge 2006.