Category: Labour Market

Panic in the streets of Belgium. Working longer.

working longer

The Problem of working longer

There is panic in the streets of Belgium. The new government wants people in Belgium to work longer. Until the age of 67. The legal retirement has been 65 but hardly anyone works until that age. As a matter of fact the average retirement age is still below 60. That is an amazingly low age. Careers in Belgium are also among the shortest in Europe: 32 years. But with the increasing life expectancy, people live longer on their (state) pension. From a budgetary perspective alone, this is not sustainable.
The new retirement age is not the most important aspect of the reform. People will have to work longer and the question is how they will do that. The other question is how organizations will create the context for people to work longer. To some readers of this might sound weird. Why do people stop working so early? Why would it be difficult to work until the age of 67? How come some countries do not have this problem.
The problem is not that we have to work longer. The problem is that we do not work long enough.

Social Unrest expected

I expect protests in Belgium. In 2005 there was a minimal reform of the early retirement schemes. The country was struck by a wave of strikes and union actions. This reform is much more fundamental and within hours after the the decision, there was protest. Some people think the idea of working longer is simply outrageous. These are some of the arguments:

  • Working longer will exacerbate the problem of youth unemployment;
  • People are unable to work longer given the high levels of stress;
  • There are too many difficult jobs that do not allow for a long career;
  • The government does not respect the social bargaining process;
  • It’s unfair to ask people to work longer because they they have a right to to ending their career at 55, 58, 60, 62, … Many people have done this before them. It’s almost a generational injustice.

The new government plans are unacceptable for the unions (there are 3 ideologically inspired unions: liberal, socialist and christian). Back in 2005 they took to the streets because the government at that time launched a “generational pact”, slightly altering the labour market. The unions took to the streets in a disproportional display of power. Now, the changes are more fundamental so they have to act, even if it were only to show their members that they defend them. But my question is: what’s the alternative? Can we go on and allow people to live on a pension during 30 years? Is it defendable to send people home in a  passive state and consume scarce government budgets? Is it fair to the generations of the future who have to carry the weight for ever-increasing numbers of people that are not active and benefit from a pension ? I don’t think so.  These questions are not always relevant in a context of social bargaining, but they are the right ones.

Societal Change

The reason for that unrest is that we are facing a societal change. During decades people told us that working longer is a problem. That we have the right to stop to enjoy our lives. The view of career was sequential: we invest through studies, then we work for a living, and retirement comes as a reward or a relief. This is fundamentally wrong. And now it’s time to change that mentality and wake up to reality (no pun intended). And this is threatening to many.
People who think nothing should ever change are sedated by satisfaction, paralyzed by fear or frozen by “entitlementitis”. To think that nothing has to change is a serious form of ostracism. The debate about working longer is not new. It has been around for at least two decades. But we have failed to act. We knew years ago that there would be a budgetary problem. We knew two decades ago that the middle generation of that time would be the new “lost” generation of today if we did nothing. And we did nothing. Or if we did something, we did not enough.

People who think nothing should ever change are sedated by satisfaction, paralyzed by fear or frozen by “entitlementitis”

Focus on Employability

The question is if working longer is good for us. We will get into that in a later blog post. But it’s not that people are in general unable to work longer. Or that working longer is per se unhealthy. We need to look beyond the limitations of our imagination and education and check what is happening in other countries (like Sweden) and in certain companies. Moreover we need to focus on the right variable, which is not related to age. That variable is (sustainable) employability.

  • Employability, and not employment should be the focus. If we focus on employment we glue people to their chairs. If we focus on employability, we make sure that they are mobile, agile, eager to learn and move on. A job becomes a source of employability instead of a source of only income.
  • Countries where people work longer do not have higher levels of youth unemployment. There is no causal effect. The capacity to create jobs is probably more determining for labour market participation. But in countries who do not have enough jobs available, there is an almost logical yet perverse shift of employment from the more expensive older workforce towards the cheaper younger workforce. This expulsion of older workers was justified because it allegedly favored the employment of the younger. This mechanism is not a law of nature. A company has the choice to go for rejuvenation programs (a euphemism for labor cost reduction) or to find ways to integrate the older workforce.
  • The model of flexicurity offers a model of how a labour-market can work without creating too much dependencies. This model has been under debate in countries like Belgium but there has not been much enthusiasm for it.
  • People should learn at early ages to manage their career (and their life). They should develop career competencies. One of the most important career competencies is the ability to learn. People should focus not on a status-quo but on continuous learning. Learning new things within a job or changing jobs increases the chances one has in the future. People that are a one-trick-pony with no learning skills are at peril.
  • We need to understand the importance of job quality for sustainable employability. Repetitive work should be avoided. Work without autonomy, social support and a too high workload is not a goog idea. But although workers report satisfaction with their job, they report a low quality of work. This paradox indicates that people are willing to accept a low quality job in exchange for other, more extrinsic things like convenience, income, job security.

Difficulties ahead

Unions could save themselves the trouble of taking to the streets. I do understand that these manifestations are used as a way to take away the pressure and to canalize anger. It’s a ritual. But, we should sit together and work out a structural way to move on together. I have pleaded several times for a kind of pact that aims at restoring our competitiveness as a country and improves our chances to win in a very global and competitive market. Working longer is part of that pact. It’s not by being complacent and by focussing on what has been possible in the past that we will move forward. Changing this will take a lot of effort and courage. But I believe it’s the only way. And yes, there are difficulties ahead. Cultural, budgetary and technical issues will make it hard to get there (and to stay there). But if it’s really a pact we will start from what our country needs, and not from what we want. Like a sunflower that adapts to the sunlight, we need to adapt. Let’s get rid of the paralysis, the sedation or the frozenness. And let’s overcome the difficulties of working longer together.

Decent Work. Decent Life.

The most important aspect of work is to have work. Of course the job has to be decent. The International Labour Organisation has a program me for decent work. This is how the ILO describes decent work:

Work is central to people’s well-being. In addition to providing income, work can pave the way for broader social and economic advancement, strengthening individuals, their families and communities. Such progress, however, hinges on work that is decent. Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives.

In itself this is a vague notion work decency. Decency is conformity to the prevailing standards of propriety and morality. So decent work is work that conforms to what we see as appropriate. But what is appropriate? Even today we it remains difficult to reach consensus about that.
Here’s an example to illustrate how difficult this is. There is consensus that child labour does not conform to standards. Clearly, child labour is not decent. But still we see that millions of children do hazardous work in dire circumstances. More, some families depend on the income that kids bring in. It is not that easy not to judge. Looking with our standards is easy. They are the result of more than a century of humanizing work. Even when we are appalled by working circumstances in some countries, a solution is not easy.

Decent Work as a fundamental Right

The decent work program starts from a consensus that decent work is important. The universal declaration of human rights (articles 22-25) is clear. Decent work is a fundamental right. But this right is still jeopardized. Unemployment rates have risen. The increased youth unemployment is a big concern in many countries. Countries and companies have difficulties creating jobs. This is a threat to social stability. Not having a decent job is not only an individual problem. It’s a societal problem.

Decent work and Development

When I browse through the ILO decent work program, I could not help but notice that the national programs seem to be restricted to states that are under development. These are the European countries that have such a program:

  • Albania (2012-2015)
  • Armenia (2007-2011)
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina (2012-2015)
  • The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2010-2013)
  • Republic of Moldova (2012-2015)
  • Serbia (2013-2017)
  • Ukraine (2012-2015)

That made me wonder. What about the other countries? Don’t they have issues with work decency? Is it really about development cooperation? The Western World can indeed help countries to develop an approach for increasing decent work. Their history and their economic links with developing countries put them in that position.
After the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh, many people were outraged about the work conditions there. Politicians and consumers in the West can have an impact on the decency of work for people working in those countries.

Closer to home

But if we look closer to home, we see that there is still a lot of work in the so-called developed countries. The discussions about the minimum wage in Germany and the United States of America point out that there is still a big debate going on. In 2012 a German television show exposed certain unjust practices by Zalando and Amazon. Although developed countries have started to improve work conditions in the late 19th century, there are still employers that have a doubtful way of treating their employees.
Today 109 countries that have started or finalized a Decent Work Country Program, most of which developing countries. This is in itself an important fact. But when do you stop striving for decency? The West cannot be complacent about decency. Decency is about pay and working conditions. But also about well-being. There’s an increase of mental illness at least partly related to work. We see more refined ways of exploitation in Western countries. Work should be meaningful, a source of development and sustainable employability and a source of personal fulfillment. Work is important for people and their families and it is too important to be taken for granted. Even though working conditions in developing countries seem to demand work decency programs, I suggest we integrate decency of work again in the developed countries as well. Having a job is important. Having a decent job is a fundamental right. Having a decent life is a fundamental right.

I-deals. Risky Deals?

In an earlier blog I have written about I-deals and how these could provide solutions for individual issues. But are these i-deals risky deals?  I am in favour of these i-deals. Still I also see there are a number of risks related to them. We should work to limit those risks.
A first issue is the limited accessiblity of i-deals. I am convinced that a company should allow for idiosyncratic deals as far as there is a mutual benefit. So i-deals are not accessible to all. Employees that do not contribute sufficiently will be less likely to deal for  i-deals.
There are two problems related to that. A first problem is that you might exclude people that have a lower than expected performance for whom an i-deal could be the solution. A second problem is that a proportion of people who would like an i-deal will not dare to ask.


Untitled (Manhole) by Maurizio Cattelan (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

The first problem you can solve by assessing all requests for an i-deal in terms of the future benefit and performance rather than being categorically judgemental about the present and the past. An i-deal may be the key to future success. The i-deal can also be conditional and entail performance improvement measures.
The second problem can be solved by encouraging people to look for personalised solutions if they want to. The fact that a company is not secretive about i-deals might contribute to a climate where people openly discuss the issues they are facing or the expectations that they have.
A second issue is the risk of precarity. Companies might try to negotiate i-deals that put people in a weak spot by e.g. introducing unreasonable demands for flexibility in terms of working hours or work schedules. Even when these deals are not in violation of the law, an individual employee might find himself in a weaker position in the negotiation. But it would be a pity to refrain from i-deals, because there is a risk of abuse. I am pleading for a set of clear collective arrangements in terms of minimal quality standards.
A third issue is the pressure on internal equity, especially when i-deals in terms of remuneration are entailed. I am generally not in favour of concluding i-deals that relate to remuneration. The reason for that is that unfortunately the monetary aspect of work leads to social comparison and thus jealousy. Financial i-deals might violate people’s expectations about procedural and distributive justice.
My advice is to regulate compensation by collective bargaining, mass customization and performance-related differentiation. Cafeteria plans are forms of mass customization that although being complex and labour-intensive, they offer a fixed framework that is available to everyone.
When introducing i-deals we should take heed of these risks. But when well managed i-deals should not be risky deals.

I-deal, you deal for I-deals.

Personalization of people management practices is the way forward in a world that has become increasingly challenging for individuals and their families. People are looking for meaningful activities and a sense of purpose. Work is one important way to achieve that personal fulfilment. But it’s also a role in life that is competing with other societal roles, like parenthood, community membership and citizenship. Increasingly we see people looking for better ways to cope with that complexity and fragmentation. Companies can help people to lead the lives that they choose by adapting processes and practices to individual needs and possibilities. I call that the personalization of companies and people management practices.
Major Objections
In our quest to personalize the management of people in organizations we are always struggling with two limiting factors, or major objections. These are the conflict of personalization with the need for efficiency and the conflict with the collective tradition of labour relations.
Indeed, if you adapt your organisation and processes to individual needs, you could loose the economies of scale as you will be offering solutions that deviate from standard ones. This requires attention, specific follow-up, and so this may be a source of error and of extra effort.
Moreover adapting practices to individual needs and possibilities creates differences in treatment. Our collective tradition to labour relations is oriented towards equal treatment as it complies more with our sense of justice and fairness. Making exceptions creates precedents and precedents are something both unions and employers do not like. Trade unions still focus too much on the collective entitlement. According to this principle precedents open the right to others to do and receive just the same as the colleague for which the precedent has been created.
These two objections may be paralyzing. Nevertheless there is strong evidence that the one-fits-all approach is no longer the way how to handle things. And there are solutions to individualize practices and at the same time manage them. These solutions are mass customization and I-deals.
Mass customization
A first solution is mass customization. Mass customization adapts processes and practices to individual needs, whilst maintaining a degree of industrial efficiency. The term is widely used in the automotive industry where the manufacturing of cars needs to be efficient (standardised) and customized (adaptive).
The automotive industry can build a car model with a limited number of options which can be combined in a number of ways. The combination of the options give people suficient choice so that the car has been customized to the specific needs of the buyer.
You can adopt that very principle in people management practices as well. You can offer variations in job content, career speed, time of work, place of work, health packages, salary packages, development, … The offer is standardized and the employee can make decisions within a standardized framework. If this is well done, you can cover many individual needs, without creating precedents as these solutions are accessible to all employees. An excellent source of inspiration is the book on mass career customization by Benko & Weisberg (2007).
Mass customization exceeds the traditional notion of cafeteria plans, which are usually focussed on exchanging a wage component for something else (a company car, a parking space, holidays, pension, …). Cafeteria plans may be one element of mass customization.
But if mass customization is not sufficient, it is still possible to introduce I-deals. I-deals or idiosyncratic deals are individual agreements between an employer and an individual employee that deviate from the usual framework. The agreement is tailor-made and negotiated directly by the employee. Usually the deviation concerns one element of the agreement but it’s also possible that a totally new agreement is negotiated between the employer and the employee. It’s crucial that there is a benefit for both the employee and the employer. (after Rousseau, 2005).
And what are these benefits?
1. You can use i-deals to attract and hire people that bring specific talents to the organization. This is relatively difficult because the person you hired has not proven that he’s worth it. Most HR-managers will try to postpone the individual treatment for some time (the probation period). But think of it. Why would a company not hire someone who needs a specific time schedule when it is at the same time willing to offer the same schedule to current employees?
2. I-deals are a powerful tool for retention. People face different challenges in their lives and sometimes they need to quit their job in order to solve that challenge. Making changes in the deal you have with that employee can help that employee to stay in the company.
3. You can use i-deals to have people working longer. As people will need to work longe rand retire at a later age, these i-deals can provide a solution to enable people to do this (Bal e.a. 2012).
4. I-deals that are related to time and place of work may help people to find a balance between the different roles they have in their life (Hornung e.a., 2008)
5. I-deals that are related to development have a positive impact on employee engagement (Hornung e.a., 2008)
6. I-deals can provide ways to manage the consequences of health issues or even prevent them by offering ways of work that reduce stress and eventually may decrease the chances for burn-out. I-deals are indeed ways of regulating your work and put people in command of their lives.
No secrets
A company should consider these benefits when proceding with I-deals. But there is one condition: there should be no secrets. Being secretive about I-deals might give people the impression of favouritism or even corruption (I do this for you if you do this for me). To avoid negative perceptions one should not treat i-deals in a secretive manner. The more secretive they are, the more i-deals will have a negative impact on the corporate climate. So I-deals should be public. And for this reason I am reluctant to include salary negotiations into the construction of an I-deal. Like I said on the HR square conference in june 2011, I-deals should focus on helping people to get on with their llives.
The legal environment
In Belgium and Europe there are many laws and agreements that enable people to flexibilize. Examples are laws that give parents the right to leave of absence after the birth of a child, flexibility to take care of relatives in case of illness, sabbatical leave, …
You could say that the legislator has provided a framework on national level that is similar to the mass customization on corporate level. And some employers limit their offer to that. This is not going to be enough in the future. The legislator cannot provide laws that foresee all solutions to all challenges that a person encounters in his or her life. Moreover, the legislation is not differentiating enough between those who need it and those who do not. To me, the legislator should not push forward in providing such means of mass customization. The company and the employees should take over.
Labour relations and collective bargaining
The social partners can still play their role not by maximizing the mass customization or by extending individual solutions to collective ones, but by providing a framework that fits the needs of the company and that becomes a competitive advantage to that company. It should be less a matter of entitlement but more of empowerment. And unions should understand and accept that collective bargaining is limited to an optimal level.
Since I-deals are oriented towards solving individualised solutions, unions could be happy to support those since they are in the interest of the people they claim to represent. The fact that people do not ask unions to do so and are perfectly capable of negotiating a deal for themselves is only a political problem. Indeed, I-deals should not be negotiated by unions, but by the employees themselves. The collective approach that unions have, is still valid, but only for the base deal which is the common denominator for all employees.
I can only say that i-deals should not be a threat to the system. They are an enrichment. And they enable companies to find ways to tackle current problems and help employees to be employable, regardless of the issues they might have with mobility, family, ambitions, … Surely this win-win is in the interest of everyone.
Back to the idea of justice
Many HR people will shiver when reading this. I-deals are usually reserved for senior executives, but not for the other employees. The question that arises is how you can have an i-deal for one person and refuse it for the other. How can you avoid feelings of injustice, jealousy? Is it not easier to offer the same to everyone and differentiate according to objective criteria like job grades, function, … How to avoid precedents and pollution of the social climate? How to avoid frictions with unions who will make demands to proliferate the individual advantages?
These questions are legitimate and the reluctance to go ahead is understandble. People do like to compare themselves and are very sensitive to unequal treatment.
But let me ask a simple question.
What is more unjust? Treating people with different needs in the same manner or encompassing individual differences into corporate policy? Can we deny that there is a diverse labour force of men and women, with different abilities, needs, religions, cultures? How can we ask of people to adapt to a mould, a one-fits-all?
The management of diversity requires personalization. Let’s take the example of people with a physical or mental limitation? How can we integrate people that have less abilities into a regular working environment. Is it not so that we can only do this by adapting the environment to the physical and mental possibilities of the employee? I argue that the industrialized approach to people practices makes it difficult to allow for diversity.
You might think it is outrageous to use the example of people with an impairment to make a case for personalisation, but think about it. It starts with our tolerance for differences between people and our willingness to include people. To do that, you need to flexibilize.
And there are many other examples. Adapting the job when capacities weaken with age. Or like single moms and dads who need more flexibility in the weeks they take care of their kids. Or young people who want to focus on their development and are eager to get education. Or the elderly employee who might want to reduce working time. Or Someone in the mid-career who might need a break. The stressed manager wants to cut down on responsibilities. Someone who lives far away might want to work at home. The new employee who might be not as talented for some tasks of the function he was hired for might require an adapted program. All these examples and many more can be covered by i-deals as far as the mass customized solutions do not suffice.
We adapt to individual differences because we think it’s right but also because the company might benefit from this.
I-deals are not meant for everyone in a company. Why not? A first reason is that many individual needs can be covered by the mass customized solutions that the legislator or the company offer. A second reason is much more sensitive because we link i-deals to the contribution someone has made, currently makes and will make to the objectives of the company.
A company will be reluctant to offer individualised solutions to someone who does not contribute to the results of a company. There needs to be a balance between the empathy that is offered by i-deals, the idea of justice, the contribution of an individual and the humanity of a company. I have written about that elsewhere.
Why should a company offer an i-deal to someone who does not cut it? Is it unfair to offer an i-deal to an engaged employee and not to a someone who does not contribute? I think it is not unfair. The reciprocity of the relationship between employee and employer is a vital element of the psychological contract. Offering an i-deal should be in the interest of both. And that’s why we should offer i-deals to people who add value for the company. Only then a company has an interest to add value to a person’s life by offering solutions that help him make the right choices.
I am convinced that offering an i-deal to a disengaged employee who does not contribute, will have no positive effect on this employee’s engagement. More, it will create collateral damage as the peers of that employee will see it as unfair that someone with less contribution receives flexible treatment anyway.
Focussing on reciprocity is fair. And so it is just. We can accept unequal treatment under the condition that the unequal treatment is to the benefit of the collective (Rawls, 1990). If e.g. an i-deal can make sure that the employee stays and shares his competences with the colleagues, the colleagues benefit from that as well. I realize this will be a balancing act, because the i-deal should be such that there are no or few disadvantages to the team. And if there are, the benefits should outweigh the disadvantages.
I can accept the argument that even when something is fair, it might be perceived as unjust. Indeed, people are “victims” of social comparison which can lead to strange and irrational behaviour and decisions. Let’s for now assume that we see an I-deal as act of fairness to one person, and not as an act of unfairness to another person. In this sense you could see I-deals as a kind of helping behaviour towards someone who needs it (or could use it).
I-deal, you deal for i-deals
I-deals. Everybody does it. And everybody has done it for a long time. And if the HR department will not allow it, individual leaders will look for solutions without asking. A good leader finds solutions to solve the problems that prevent him of moving ahead.
For HR I-deals are a way to flexibilize practices and to stimulate the evolution of the HR profession itself.
Today, in an individualized world, i-deals offer a way of thinking out of the box and forging an alliance with your employees. If you take care of them, they will take care of you.
Some reading material
Bal, P.M., de Jong, S.B., Jansen, P.G.W. & Bakker, A. (2012). Motivating Employees to Work Beyond Retirement: A Multi-Level Study of the Role of I-Deals and Unit Climate. Journal of Management STudies, 49 (2), 306-331.
Benko, C. & Weisberg, A.C. (2007). Mass Career Customization. Aligning the Workplace with Today’s Nontraditional Workforce. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.
Hornung, S, Rousseau, D.M. & Glaser, J. (2008). Creating flexible work arrangements through idiosyncratic deals. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (3), pp. 655-664.
Poelmans, S.A.Y. & Caligiuri, P. (2008). Harmonizing Work, Family and Personal Life.Cambrigde, Cambridge University Press.
Rawls, J. (1990). A Theory of Justice.
Rousseau, D.M. (2005). I-deals, idiosyncratic deals Employees Bargain for themselves. New York: M. E. Sharpe.
Rousseau, DM., Ho, V. & Greenberg, J. (2006). I-deals: idiosyncratic terms in employment relationships. Academy of Management Review, 31 (4), pp. 977-994.

Is het nieuwe werken voorbijgestreefd?

originally posted on
Na Yahoo heeft nu ook HP besloten om het afstandswerken af te bouwen. De redenen  daartoe zijn gelijkaardig: door mensen samen te brengen wint een organisatie aan creativiteit, sociale cohesie en efficiëntie. Is hiermee een nieuwe tendens gestart en is het Nieuwe Werken over zijn hoogtepunt heen?
Het Nieuwe Werken wordt vaak in een adem genoemd met afstandwerk, maar het is zo veel meer dan dat. Het is meer een zaak van cultuur en leiderschap, dan van technologie en telewerk. Het Nieuwe Werken is werken volgens een nieuw evenwicht, een balans tussen loslaten en vasthouden van elementen uit de werkcontext. Nog niet zo heel lang geleden lag de nadruk op controle en efficiëntie. Omwille van heel wat redenen – maatschappelijke, ecologische, arbeidsmarktpolitieke en technologische –  zijn heel wat werkgevers opgeschoven richting een grotere flexibiliteit in werkorganisatie. Telewerk is daar een aspect van, maar daarnaast zijn ook de functies en structuren waarbinnen we vandaag werken geëvolueerd. Het Nieuwe Werken gaat over het creëren van werkcontext waarin mensen succesvol kunnen zijn. Maatwerk en flexibiliteit (van werknemer én werkgever) zijn daarbij een rode draad.
Maar hét Nieuwe Werken bestaat niet. Laat ons niet dogmatisch zijn en een organisatie die telewerk niet invoert als hopeloos ouderwets bestempelen. Elke organisatie moet zoeken naar manieren om met de uitdagingen in  haar omgeving om te gaan. Het is door trial and error dat organisaties de weg vooruit vinden, en dit zal een andere weg zijn voor elke andere organisatie. Het is echter niet door telewerk in te voeren dat een organisatie zal veranderen. Een organisatie zal veranderen als de organisatiecultuur verandert, als wordt gekeken naar de behoeften van de organisatie en haar medewerkers. Het Nieuwe Werken draait om leiderschap. Een onderneming of organisatie zal zo op een organische manier evolueren naar een nieuwe manier van werken. Het volstaat dus niet om enkel technologie en infrastructuur aan te passen.
Dus als Yahoo en HP het afstandswerken reduceren of afschaffen, dan betekent dat niet noodzakelijk dat ze andere principes zoals autonomie en participatie de wacht aanzeggen. Beide hebben vastgesteld dat afstandswerken wellicht niet evident is. Het meest efficiënte is dat werknemers gedurende dezelfde tijd op dezelfde plaats beschikbaar zijn. Maar is dit wel zo realistisch? Telewerk is inderdaad niet efficiënt, maar dat is verlof ook niet. Het is niet omdat een bedrijf telewerk afzweert, dat daarom de redenen die het hanteerde om het ooit in te voeren verdwenen zijn. Telewerk is een middel om mobiliteitsproblematiek tegen te gaan. Het helpt werknemers om een betere balans te krijgen tussen werk- en privéleven, geen overbodige luxe in deze tijden van stress en burn-out. Het helpt organisaties bovendien om flexibel om te springen met kantoorruimte. En het is een krachtig argument om mensen aan te trekken.
Er bestaan genoeg manieren om de mogelijk negatieve gevolgen van afstandwerken in te perken door vb. duidelijke afspraken te maken, of door planmatig fysieke ontmoetingen te organiseren. In telewerk laat men misschien de tijd en de plaats van werken meer los, maar er kan nog steeds gestreefd worden naar bepaalde resultaten en verwachtingen. Problemen van cohesie en sociale creativiteit zullen niet noodzakelijk opgelost worden door mensen weer samen te brengen, er zijn trouwens genoeg technologische en organisatorische oplossingen beschikbaar op de markt om dit te verhelpen.
Elk bedrijf kan kiezen hoe het zich organiseert. Meer dan ooit moet het echter vertrekken vanuit de sterkten en behoeften van zijn mensen. Telewerk afbouwen – ook al is het om een goede reden – geeft aan dat de prioriteit weer meer ligt bij de noden van de organisatie. Mits een duidelijke communicatie over de redenen waarom een organisatie de klok terugdraait, kan dit ook werken. Maar het zal niet lang duren of vragen zullen naar boven komen om de slinger toch weer een beetje meer naar het midden te doen komen. Want hoe men het draait of keert, het flexibel omgaan met arbeidsorganisatie, met tijd en plaats van werken, … zal (mits een ondersteunende leiderschapscultuur) bijdragen tot de competitiviteit van de organisatie op lange termijn.
David Ducheyne

Pension Reform: let's live now.

These are difficult times for unions in Belgium. The government has (finally) decided to go ahead with a pension reform and is doing so with an unprecedented speed. The political agreement and the deadline for its implementation, leaves little room for dialogue between the social partners and the government. It is generally accepted by the public that pension reform is needed so the time seems to be right. But this is not how the unions see it. They see three problems:

  1. They have not sufficiently been involved in the debate about the pension reform (“erosion of social dialogue”);
  2. They see individual rights threatened (“broken promisses”) not only in terms of pension rights but also in terms of unemployment protection;
  3. They see the rights of entrepreneurs and companies broadly untouched (“injustice through unfairness”).

The first problem might be the most important one. Belgium has a strong tradition of social dialogue and a high trade union density. Unions owe it to themselves to react. That explains the harsh language and the announced strikes. Unions do what they do and the rituals are needed to get through this without loss of face. In the past these actions have always led to compromises. But today something peculiar is going on. The minister responsible for pension reform – Vincent Van Quickenborne – announces that he will go through with it, even when this means he will never get re-elected. This is unheard and a new political courage. The socialist party – who has provided the prime minister – confirms that these reforms will go through. The unions are not at ease with this fait accompli and this determinationI can imagine that they are getting nervous.
Union leaders claim now that they have tried their best to keep things calm so far, but they can no longer guarantee that emotions will not lead to wild strikes. They have called for a national strike end of January to channel those emotions (to be honest, the strike was pre-emptive as it was announced before the government was formed). The strike comes after the deadline that the government has given itself. Unions are taken by surprise by the speed in which the reform will be presented to Parliament. They are surprised by the no-way-back and there-is-no-alternative (a style that they know very well themselves). So the national strike might come too late.
Even when unions have a point when they say that the tradition of social dialogue has not been maintained, unions are not informing their members correctly. So let’s put forward some elements.

  1. Belgium has one of the lowest activity rates for elderly people. There are other countries that combine later retirement with low unemployment, and high quality of labour with high employment. We need to look at other countries like the Netherlands or the Scandinavian countries to see that it’s possible. So why not in Belgium?
  2. The pension system as we know it, is underfinanced and future generations will not be able to support the retired if nothing happens. There are no reserves. The real pension age has been too low for decades through systems of early retirement. Subsidized systems of work time reduction or sabbaticals have become so popular that not only they are costly but they have also contributed to the deficit of the system. All this in combination with the increased life expectancy has undermined the financial stability of the pension system.
  3. The economic crisis has created a budget deficiency, which requires budgetary action. This is most probably the main cause for the wrath of unions, but saying that the banks should pay instead of the workers is populism. A pension reform was needed also before 2008, when the financial and economic crisis started.
  4. Belgium is one of the last countries in Western Europe to go ahead with a pension reform. It’s a matter of competitiveness and of image.
  5. The pension reform cannot be a surprise. The debate has been going on for years and there was a modest prelude in 2005. That year the generation pact has been voted. The effect of this generation pact has been modest not to say insufficient.
  6. Social Expenditure in general in Belgium has gone up. This is an indication that there is no erosion of social protection. (see a recent publication of the social security agency We need to heed the efficiency of the system (but working costs have not gone up dramatically) and it’s a sign of good governance that a government wants to prevent a derailment of the system. There should be no doubt about that.
  7. All in all, the reforms are even not that dramatic. The legal age for retirement has not increased. Compared to our neighbouring countries many things have been kept intact. This probably means that the reforms will not be sufficient and more reforms will be needed. It took Germany 15 years to reform their pension scheme. In the coming reforms we need to make sure that people acquire during their working life sufficient reserves to maintain the quality of life after retirement.

A different way of thinking is needed
The elements above are of a technical nature. What we need to do is to change the way we look at work. Work is not something that prevents us from living. It’s a part of our life and it gives life a purpose. It’s a pity to value retirement as the ultimate reward of work, as the main deferred benefit. Let’s live now.

Greedom or Freed (about Greed and Freedom)

The smell of Revolution

The smell of revolution is hanging in the air. The so-called Indignados are taking to the streets to protest against a system that they see as disruptive but that is apparently kept alive by massive financial injections. People are on the streets in Brussels, Madrid, New York and other cities in protest. So are they just rabble, anarchists, a minority, melancholic communists? Are these people protesting because they are unable to integrate in a societal system that is omnipresent and has been so since the times of industrialisation?
Or is there something more to it? Are people rejecting the system?
Naomi Klein asks the question why it took so long before people took to the streets. The answer is simple: it took so long because people indeed have benefitted from the system. The system appeals to one of the main drivers of human behaviour : greed. She describes the current system in her latest book on the shock doctrine (2007).


Three psychological mechanisms are behind greed. The first mechanism is adaptation. We adapt to new situations. So if we reach a new and higher level of comfort we adapt to it and more we do not appreciate it. Once there, we assume that this level is acquired for ever. A second mechanism is social comparison. People compare their situation with the situation of relevant others. Those relevant others are usually people that are perceived to be better off. The third mechanism is the mechanism of choice. We can choose whom we compare with. We can choose to aspire other things. We can choose what to do and what not to do.
John Whitmore (1997) describes three choices: you can live in a state of need, a state of greed or a state of freedom. These three levels are also called dependence, independence and interdependence. When we make choices based on dependence, we are not taking any responsibility for what happens to us. If we base our choices on independence we are focussing on personal interest and personal interest only. Finally in interdependence we try to reconcile both the personal interests and the the interests of the other. Few people are on the third level, in spite of the fact that we know that people who can function on that level usually experience a high level of meaningfulness and happiness in life.
Zizek (2011) describes the four drivers behind the fact that the current system is no longer sustainable: (1) the worldwide ecological crisis, (2) imbalances within the economic system, (3) the biogenetic revolution and (4) exploding social divisions and ruptures. Drivers 1, 2 and 4 are clear in the protests.


A couple of months ago I was in Barcelona and walked through the Catalunya Square where thousands of indignati were gathered and I noticed the multitude of themes they were addressing (see an earlier blog, Spanish Revolution). Indeed, people have a feeling of Unbehagen about the world they live in, even though that the spark that ignites the protests is often unemployment and lack of personal perspectives.
So is this an issue of Zeitgeist, a late fin-de-siècle, an apocalyptic feeling? Well let’s face the brutal facts and then we can only be worried. Putting your head in the sand and ignoring the signs will not get us anywhere.
But solving the problem is not simple if people reside in states of dependence or independence. As long as we derive our identity from what we have and consume and not from what and who we really are (e.g. defined by the trace we leave on the planet, our legacy). It will not work if we cling onto personal objectives. It will not work if we think that earning more, consuming more, … is a definition of success. Leaving all that behind is difficult, because we have been brought up that way. proves that it is possible. Their motto is “don’t be rich, live rich”. (

Let’s not be passive

We should not be passive about what is happening around us. If there are changes ahead we should shape them. Today there is protest, but we need real action.
And all of the solutions are available, at least in theory. On a personal level one could strive to be content with what is and not discontent with what is not. Suppressing greed is an act of balance. One could decide to compare oneself with those who are worse off than oneself and look at that other one with compassion instead of judgment. You could design your life based on health and sustainability.
Companies could work actively to install systems of justice based on fairness (cfr Rawls’ Theory of Justice) and reducing the gap between the highest and lowest incomes. Companies could strive for policies that are based on the principle of freedom and interdependence. Shareholders could postpone immediate profit and invest in sustainable operations.
Unions could stop focussing on purchasing power increases and work on sustainable progress. They could focus on employability instead of on income in those countries and companies where decent work is a given. Producers could refrain from exploiting labour forces in other continents.
Governments could regulate and discourage speculations that are in the interest of a few but against general interest. They can build systems that decrease the span between the highest and the lowest incomes. The redistributive function of taxation could be stressed. This requires courageous politicians that are willing and able to take the necessary action. The question is whether or not these politicians will get elected.
On different levels, many issues are possible. But to be honest, I am quite pessimistic that this change is likely to occur. People define the current state as freedom, but it is “greedom“. Our current feeling of being free is a false one. We are very much depending on a system that seems to be facing a meltdown and which is addictive. Current solutions are old school and departing from the current system. Billions of Euros and Dollars are pumped into a leaking system, and it’s not bringing any change about.
I’m sure if someone reads this blog, he or she might think this is a radical leftist opinion. It’s not. I ask not to judge on any ideological system, but to look for answers to the huge problems of ecology, economy and society. Let’s put individual responsibility in the center of collective action. Let’s work towards a state of “freed” instead of “greedom”, that’s what those people on the streets want and that’s what people would benefit from. And that’s what our children en their children would benefit from.
And even if there are now only a couple of thousands of them, there will be more. There should be more.
Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine, the rise of disaster capitalism. Alfred Knopf Editors.
Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Whitmore, J. (1997). Need, Greed or Freedom: Business Changes and Personal Choices. London, Element Books, pp. 224

Zizek, S. (2010). Living in the end Times. London, Verso. 

Other Blogs

Youth Unemployment: The Spanish Revolution

Youth Unemployment: The Spanish revolution

On Friday may 27 2011, I witnessed how the Spanish Police in battle-dress evacuated the Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona. Youngsters had gathered on this famous square – probably inspired by the events in the Middle East and Northern Africa – to protest against the skyrocketing youth unemployment and the apparent lack of remedy. The atmosphere was that of a political rally mixed with a musical festival. Young people were debating about many topics, but most discussions were dealing with their future, given the high unemployment rate.
Youth unemployment in Spain was at 42,8% at the end of 2010. For the sake of comparison: Morocco was at 18,8%, Portugal had 23% and Greece was at 36,9%. (Source
The (weak) economic recovery seems to create jobs, also for youngsters. But the ILO warns that youngsters could get discouraged and stop participating to the labour market. This could be the case in those countries where statistics are not a high priority for governments and where registration as unemployed is no obligation , where there is hidden unemployment or subsidized employment, where there is no unemployment allowance, where participation of women in the labour market is low, … They stay at home or even end up in criminal activity, …
In Spain people talk about the lost generation. Unemployed young people cannot start with their lives; they cannot afford living on their own let alone buying a house. They are confronted with a grim future. Many of them have studied and realize they cannot find decent work. They end up in precarious employment situations, low paying jobs.
According to the ILO we need a government approach that generates sustainable job recovery and sufficient high quality jobs for youngsters. Having a meaningful job is of the greatest importance for people as it is a basis for mental wellbeing. A job generates income; it provides meaningfulness to one’s existence. One can make a difference, contribute, and acquire societal status through employment. Research shows that the lack of a job or losing it has a negative impact on mental health. For someone at the start of his or her career it means a very uncertain future.

What can we do about youth unemployment?

There is no miracle cure. But this is what governments should do:

  1. Make youth unemployment a priority;
  2. Make sure having a job is worthwhile. Reduce fiscal pressure on income through labour.
  3. Provide early work experiences for youngsters by combining education and work. Review your educational system to maximize these experiences.
  4. Make sure that people leave school with a degree and provide ways for catching up for those without degree.
  5. Make sure that companies are open for diversity and look at potential instead of at degrees or the match with rigid job-demands.
  6. Encourage companies to hire people that have no professional experience, even though they are less productive at the start or you risk losing them after a short time. Companies should consider this as a way of corporate social responsibility. Governments can give incentives.
  7. Provide early guidance towards the labour market for youngsters, starting at school. This should cover study choice, curriculum building, internship management, …
  8. If you have no opportunities for your young generation, then help them to emigrate and hope that they will return tou your country once things are getting better. They might remember that you’ve helped them. But deal with your brain drain.

<h3>Back to Spain</h3>
The Plaça Catalunya has been evacuated because there was a soccer match between Barça and Manchester United. It’s cynical that a soccer game – the fear for riots – comes before the protesting youngsters. Barça won and I think that the crowd on the square would have celebrated together with the fans. The square was empty at 8h30 but was filled again with young angry people by noon. People I talked to – both with and without a job – disapproved the approach of the government.
But the situation is indeed cumbersome. The government led by Zapatero has no miracle cure and is faced with many challenges. What is then left for the current generation of the PIGS-countries? Do they have the choice between unemployment and emigration? Will Spain sacrifice this generation and focus on the budgetary deficit. Will Spain create a future for its future generation? A social emergency plan is needed.
David Ducheyne
Read also : ILO, Global Employment Trends 2011: The challenge of a jobs recovery

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