1 and Amparo Serrano2 Introduction




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The EU’s concept of activation for young people: towards a new social contract?

Eduardo Crespo1 and Amparo Serrano2

1. Introduction

The concept of activation covers a wide range of employment measures with very different approaches and emphases that are determined by the cultural and political traditions of each country, or even of the various regions within a country (Barbier 2000; Lodemel and Trickey 2001). However, despite the existence of these socially determined differences, all the measures have in common the fact that they are based on a new definition of the relationship between rights and responsibilities, in other words a new social contract. They all share the principle that the main responsibility for dealing with unemployment lies with the individual. In this context, responsibility is not simply taken to mean that the causes of unemployment are individual (that is, blame), but also in terms of making the individual responsible for implementing strategies to find work. What this amounts to is a redefinition of the established relationship between individual and society. The institutionalisation of social welfare through the welfare state was based on an understanding of unemployment as a threat to society, and it was therefore assumed that it was society’s duty to tackle this threat. It should be pointed out that one of the cornerstones of the prevailing model of social welfare and production in our society at the time was the principle of advance planning and regulation. Risk was seen as a burden which needed to be tackled through institutionally provided means. However, in contrast to this principle of society being responsible for dealing with risk, what we are seeing today is that the individual is increasingly being expected to undertake risk management. Risk is no longer seen as something negative but as something which is inevitable or even positive and necessary for economic growth and individual well-being. This change in the way in which risk is portrayed has come about as the discourse of the knowledge-based society has gained currency. According to this discourse we are witnessing the emergence of a new model of production which requires new principles for social and economic intervention. The European Union, particularly in its European Employment Strategy, has been especially active in promoting and spreading the knowledge-based society discourse and the need to review the social contract. Young people are one of the main targets of activation-based measures, largely because it is easier to make them accept what other groups might consider to be a rather questionable form of intervention in view of its coercive and paternalistic nature. Lodemel and Trickey (2001) show how this could be seen as an extension of the principle of institutionalised compulsory education for young people, something which is no longer questioned. Other issues that should be mentioned are the lower social value placed on young people’s work, the lower expectations of young people (which means that they are likelier to accept jobs with poorer conditions), and the potential danger of their work ethic suffering.

The first part of this paper will consider the nature and extent of European Union regulation in this field, and will attempt to demonstrate the significance of the role played by the EU’s institutions as promoters of ideological socialisation. Whilst it is true that the European Union did not invent the activation-based discourse, it has nevertheless played a major role in its propagation and in establishing the terms in which the problem of unemployment is discussed. The second section will examine the way in which the model of production is changing and how this has led to a need for new terminology that enables us to understand the ‘social question’. Finally, we will analyse the discourse of the EU’s institutions, particularly in respect of the European Employment Strategy, with a view to establishing the basis of the EU’s discourse with regard to activation.



2. The EU employment strategy: coordination of national policies for combating unemployment

At the 1997 Luxembourg Summit, the EU’s member states agreed to coordinate national policies for combating unemployment at European level. Whilst this strategy was aimed at all unemployed people, particular emphasis was placed on certain groups, such as the long-term unemployed, young people, and women.

The Luxembourg process probably constitutes one of the most credible attempts so far to create a social Europe. Its aim is to establish mechanisms for coordinating employment policy at European level. Thus, employment policy is being used to take the first steps towards complementing economic convergence with social convergence, although control of employment policy will remain in the hands of national governments. Rather than meaning the division of responsibilities between the national and the European level or the harmonisation of legislation in the different member states, what this amounts to is the establishment of dual-level cooperation and coordination with regard to employment policy (Goetschy and Pochet 1997). The idea is to create an open and flexible means of coordination between different levels aimed at solving common problems (Pochet 2001). This open form of coordination allows for a type of regulation which falls somewhere between more legislation-based regulation, which is considered to be inappropriately inflexible, and more flexible forms of ‘soft regulation’ (official recommendations, exchange of information, best practice, and national experience, development of structural indicators, joint information). Hence, it is designed to increase the legitimacy of European-level actions whilst still respecting both the huge diversity of labour markets in the member states and the national regulatory systems (Goetschy 1999).

The EU’s employment strategy thus combines a methodology (aimed at driving policy in a common direction) with a number of quantified goals, and can be described as a process of creating regulations by consensus (Salais 2001) that comprises several stages. First of all, the EU establishes a set of guidelines (common targets for combating unemployment) based on a joint analysis of the situation in the different member states and of the main policy issues that need to be addressed in order to reduce unemployment. Comparative indicators are then developed in order to evaluate the results achieved in each country. Thereafter, the member states have to draw up an annual National Action Plan (NAP) for the implementation of the employment guidelines. The transposition of the guidelines into quantified national targets should respect the principle of subsidiarity and be in keeping with the broad principles of national economic policy. The NAPs are reviewed by the European Union (in accordance with the principle of multilateral supervision) and also using the peer review method, and an evaluation report is drawn up (‘joint employment report’) which makes a series of recommendations.

This process has been consolidated as it has developed. Thus, at the recent summits in Lisbon and Nice, particular attention was paid to the creation of statistically comparable joint indicators in order to enable more effective evaluation of employment policies and to allow best practice to be identified. It appears that the trend is towards an inductive form of regulation based on principles such as coordination and awareness-raising (promoting exchange of information, communication, conferences) rather than more legislative forms of regulation such as directives.

Brief evaluation of the open method of coordinating the EU Employment Strategy (EES)

A number of criticisms have been levelled at the Luxembourg process, questioning the real impact of the EU’s strategy and whether it is actually possible to talk of an EU strategy for combating unemployment at all. First, the weak regulatory content and modest scope of the strategy have been criticised. Unlike in the case of EMU (economic and monetary union), the EES is based on guidelines and recommendations, and no specific penalties are available if these guidelines are not followed. Consequently, the employment strategy is in no way comparable to the verifiable and very clearly defined criteria for economic convergence, where sanctions were in place for countries that failed to meet the criteria. This means that in most cases the NAPs amount to little more than a continuation of existing policy, with the production of the action plans simply being an exercise in dressing up existing practices as part of a European strategy. Furthermore, most of the NAPs fail to adopt an integrated approach and do not clearly specify concrete targets, the resources available for implementation, or the indicators to be used for evaluation.

Another criticism of the EU’s employment strategy is that only limited financial resources are available for it. Indeed, the process was only accepted by the member states on condition that no additional financial resources would be required, in circumstances in which some countries are seeking to reduce the level of their contributions to the EU’s budget (Goetschy 1999; Keller 2000). The only EU funding available is through the structural funds; however, these are also aimed at regional economic projects designed to promote convergence in terms of development across the EU. It could therefore be argued that the EES is not so much a European strategy as a strategy for coordinating national policies which is wholly dependent on the extent to which member states are prepared to cooperate (Keller 2000). A further problem is the vagueness and weakness of the concepts underpinning the strategy, for example, employability, flexibility, activation, and partnership, all of which are ambiguous terms which can be interpreted in various ways, making it easy for member states to simply continue their existing policies.

Despite these weaknesses, the EU’s strategy could still have a significant impact at national level. The vagueness of many of the concepts employed does not necessarily have to constitute a weak point; indeed, it could be construed as a strength, since it makes it easier to adapt the strategy to different national labour markets.

Furthermore, although there are no official penalties for failing to implement the strategy, peer pressure may yet ensure a high degree of compliance: whilst the guidelines may not be legally enforceable, the symbolic importance of meeting them is nevertheless considerable. Poor results on the basis of the structural indicators established by the EU are likely to provoke considerable political debate domestically (Pochet 2001).

Indeed, the mere act of reclassifying existing policies into the categories established by the new employment guidelines has had a major symbolic impact. There can be little doubt that the socio-cognitive influence of EU discourse is increasing and that national policy is adapting more and more to the framework and approach of the European Union (Barbier 2001).

This approach has had a far-reaching impact on the way in which the problem is described and has influenced the overall direction of the debate. For example, terms such as employability, activation, benchmarking, partnership, and mainstreaming are becoming more and more popular at national level. Although these concepts were not invented by the European Union, it has nevertheless made them into official terms and popularised them. The institutions of the EU play an important role in determining the direction of the debate on this issue and in proposing new ideas and measures. In other words, they have an important socialising role, especially when it comes to developing a way of describing and explaining the problem of certain groups’ exclusion from the labour market. This is certainly one of the conclusions that can be reached regarding the impact of the EU’s strategy on young people (Serrano 2000).

With its emphasis on identifying and exchanging ‘best practices’, the EU’s strategy seeks to make it possible to share diverse practices and to promote the concept of learning from each other (Pochet 2000), all of which strengthens the socialising role of the European Union’s institutions (Teague 2001). Indeed, it could be argued that more rigid forms of legislation-based regulation would be poorly suited to today’s rapidly changing world. The kind of regulation envisaged by the EES is more flexible and could also be a very important means of influencing the situation. To some extent, the EU is adopting a regulatory system which is similar to the one previously adopted by the OECD, where recommendations and identification of best practice also played a key role in the discourse at national level.

In the case of groups such as women and young people, this process has led to greater emphasis being placed on evaluation and has promoted awareness of the need to develop suitable indicators (Behning and Serrano 2001). This in turn has meant better information, and a better understanding and greater awareness of the problem. In this respect, the process has had a significant impact at national level in terms of raising awareness of the situation of certain groups in the labour market.

The European Union is therefore promoting a new way of understanding the ‘social question’ in line with the prevailing model of production. The next section will look at the links between the prevailing model of production and ways of regulating the ‘social question’.



3. Model of production and social welfare

The European Union is playing a major part in defining both the terms of the debate surrounding the social question and the explanations that are coming to be accepted regarding the causes of unemployment. The EU’s institutions have made activation the cornerstone of their social welfare model. The reasons put forward for this approach are changes in the number and make-up of the unemployed, the rise in the number of people claiming benefit, and the associated rise in public spending. These changes have brought about a debate concerning the viability of a welfare state which has witnessed a transformation in the industrialised society model of production which was the very reason for its creation in the first place. In this section it will be argued that the EU model of activation-based intervention is a consequence not only of the problems with funding the social security system but also of new production requirements (being prepared to change jobs frequently, dynamism, initiative, autonomy). These are things which the EU presents as a fait accompli, arguing that modern society has changed over to a new model of production characterised by the metaphor of the knowledge-based society. It is not our intention to discuss whether or not this assertion is justified, but rather to examine the way in which the knowledge-based society requires a new ideology which has found concrete expression in the shape of the discourse regarding activation. Thus, the changes in the model of production are affecting the established, institutionalised relationship between employment and citizenship, altering the balance between social rights and individual responsibilities, and thereby contributing to a reassessment of the regulatory and legal basis of the welfare state.



Labour regulation in industrialised societies

Stability is the fundamental principle on which industrialised societies have traditionally been based. In order to achieve this stability it was necessary to eliminate uncertainty by means of strict labour regulation, removing risks and controlling future events. Economic and social stability were key requirements for this model of production. In organisational terms, the model was based on the strict division of labour (specialisation), keeping the manufacture of a product separate from its design, and a rigid structuring of the tasks performed at work. Centralised and hierarchical organisations met the market’s requirement for the mass production of identical goods. Economic and social stability were fundamental requirements of this model of mass production.

Social stability was achieved via the institutionalisation of the welfare state and of industrial relations. The institutionalisation of industrial relations allowed disputes to be predicted, planned for and regulated, all of which had a positive effect on companies’ profitability. Whilst the market does play an important regulatory role, it also has a number of weaknesses. The market alone does not guarantee stability and productivity, which is why social regulation of the market was necessary. This in turn is why state intervention was needed in order to ensure that certain areas were not regulated solely in accordance with the principles of financial profit. In this way, the welfare state constituted a way of protecting against risk. The institutionalisation of social welfare in the shape of the welfare state was further encouraged by the fact that unemployment came to be seen as a risk. The extent of unemployment meant that the liberal ideas that had prevailed previously, according to which poverty and joblessness were the responsibility of the individual, were no longer sustainable. Recognition of the intrinsic inequality of human beings led to a series of contractual guarantees being officially codified for employees. This, together with the statistical approach which was starting to be employed in order to measure unemployment and poverty more accurately (that is, on the basis of their causes, with a distinction being drawn between voluntary and involuntary unemployment) led to the problem being seen in terms of risk rather than individual fault (Rosanvallon 1995; Vanthemsche 1994). The idea of the state guaranteeing security in the face of temporary risks was reinforced by modernist thinking which presented progress as an inescapable imperative and saw strength and the ability to predict the future as guaranteeing this progress. According to this view, if humankind’s ability to reason was used correctly, it would enable us to control our species’ destiny and free the individual from poverty, allowing us to overcome natural and social determinism (Touraine 1993). Work thus became the cornerstone of society’s future. This combination of factors allowed people to manage the uncertainty implicit in the condition of being an employee. The social contract established as a result of the above enabled a degree of redistribution of income among the people protected by social security and throughout the whole life of each individual (the spreading of risk across society).

In this model, the individual was generally portrayed as a member of a group, be it a kin group, a group of workers, or a national group. Social welfare was structured on the basis of these three groups: the family, the factory or company, and the nation. The prevailing intervention strategies were based on (contributory) social security systems and aid (benefits), and the unemployed were the beneficiaries of social welfare programmes targeted on specific groups. This sectoral welfare state model was based on centralised regulation (substantialist regulatory values) in the framework of a general and abstract (and hence universal) law (social rights). Social welfare was regarded as a right intrinsic to the condition of citizenship.

The transformation of the model of production and social welfare: labour regulation in the knowledge-based society

In contrast with the above, the basic principle that characterises the model of production that is currently emerging is risk or instability. It is considered impossible to regulate events before they happen and risk is seen as inevitable. This makes it necessary to promote flexibility, so that people are able to cope with uncertainty and adapt to rapid changes in production demands. In this model of production, the ability to cope with unforeseen and sudden changes is held to be a prerequisite of economic success. In order to achieve this, a different organisational model is often encouraged, based on a multiskilled workforce and the linking of production and design. Some organisations have horizontal structures which require more independent workers with greater individual responsibility and able to perform a much wider range of tasks in order to meet the more individualised requirements of the market.

This model of labour regulation is accompanied by the emergence of a model of social welfare regulation which sees insecurity as inevitable. Rather than protecting against risk, the welfare state concentrates on promoting risk management (workfare), thereby consolidating the laws of the market. Thus, the market becomes the only regulator, punishing anyone who fails to adapt to its absolute laws of technological development and competitiveness. This technological determinism and tendency to see change as inevitable evokes a number of Darwinist metaphors. Likewise, the abovementioned change in the role of the welfare state is justified by the portrayal of unemployment as something for which the individual is responsible. The individual is seen as being responsible for managing risk (for example, the loss of one’s job), and this risk is considered to be an inevitable fact of life.

Against this background, citizenship is held to be something that an individual has to earn rather than possesses as a right. As such, citizenship is described fundamentally in individual terms rather than in social terms, being determined by personal behaviour (individual choices and attitudes) and focusing on the individual’s responsibilities rather than those of the welfare state. All of this contributes to the emergence of a ‘mistrustful welfare state’ which concentrates on combating dependency, condemned as nothing more than people sponging off the state. The core of the social question thus ceases to be the dependent relationship between employees and employers and becomes instead the issue of dependency on the welfare state. The main features of this trend are summarised in the following table.


Table 1: From socialisation of risk towards individualisation of risk





Socialisation
of risk


Individualisation
of risk



Principles of productive and social model

Planning and pre- regulation

Rapid change and instability

Social representation of unemployment

Social risk: societal duty to tackle risk (of unemployment, poverty, and so on)

Individual responsibility: risk is unavoidable. Individual duty to tackle the situation

Target of the institutionalisation
of solidarity

The wage earner’s condition implies dependence on employers

Dependency on the social state

Social model


Welfare: protection against risk. Provide resources which guarantees security and stability

Workfare: provide tools to individual to manage risks

It is therefore important to analyse the types of policy to which this emerging model of production and social welfare is leading. It is the belief of the authors that the institutional discourse, particularly of those institutions that play an important regulatory role at supranational level (OECD, EU), is having a major ideological influence on the way in which the social welfare model is changing, with activation-based measures and employment policy being a case in point. The discourse of the European Union on the subject of activation, especially in the context of the Luxembourg process,3 is making a key contribution to the legitimisation of both the emerging model of production and, simultaneously, the development of a new ‘social contract’. We will now examine this process in more detail.



4. Activation in EU discourse: the characteristics of the social welfare model being proposed

Discourse is not merely a means of expressing decisions and actions that have already been taken: it too is an action which can have a number of different functions. The main function of political discourse in general, and more specifically of the discourse regarding activation, is to justify and legitimise the decisions taken by institutions.

Political discourse is therefore a rhetorical action designed to justify to a target audience decisions that have been taken. It seeks to present these decisions as reasonable conclusions that have been arrived at on the basis of a definition of reality and a set of values that are allegedly shared by the target audience – for example, social welfare (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1988) – or in accordance with supposedly universally shared principles, such as the fight against dependency or unemployment. In this respect, the political discourse concerning activation actually constructs a definition of reality. As Fairclough (2000: 1) points out in relation to the language of the new capitalism,

Language is an important part of the new order. First because imposing the new order centrally involves the reflexive process of imposing new representations of the world, new discourses; second because new ways of using language are an important part of the new order. So the project of the new order – a project because it is incomplete, and those who benefit from it are working to extend it – is partly a language project. Correspondingly, the struggle over the new order is partly a struggle over language.

The reality constructed by the EU discourse on activation both defines the social actors and their responsibilities (section A), and produces the individuals that it relates to (section B).

A. Defining the situation: the role of the social institutions

These authors would argue that the EU’s discourse regarding the current situation in Europe is profoundly contradictory. On the one hand, it is based on the need to adapt actively to the new economic order, and in this respect it considers national and European institutions to be responsible for managing this process of change (responsible for activating the economy, activating the workforce, and activating social welfare, see A.1). On the other hand, it also seeks to present change as something natural, adopting a fatalistic attitude according to which the situation is inevitable, which means that there is very little that the institutions can do about the tyrannical demands of new technologies (A.2).



A.1. Active adaptation: the European social model.

The discourse on activation is a discourse about change and more specifically a discourse about the need for both the economy and individuals to be proactively involved in change. This active adaptation is declared to be a current need and something that is likely to continue to be necessary in the future.

The rapid changes in information technology, communication and life sciences make it necessary for each Member State . . . to be at the cutting edge of the knowledge-based and innovatory economy and society, the wellspring today of growth and development. (European Council 2000b: 14)

To a great extent, adaptation consists in knowing how to make the most of the potential of both the EU’s citizens or workers and the information society itself:

The rapid and accelerating pace of change means it is urgent for the Union to act now to harness the full benefits of the opportunities presented. (European Council 2000a: 1)

Preparing the transition to a knowledge-based economy, reaping the benefits of the information and communication technologies, modernising the European social model by investing in people and combating social exclusion and promoting equal opportunities are key challenges for the Luxembourg process. (European Commission 2001b: 8)

This active adaptation is based on what has come to be known as the European social model, something which is paradoxically understood as both a reality and a process:

The Union must shape these changes in a manner consistent with its values and concepts of society . . . (European Council 2000a: 1)

[this model is] characterised in particular by systems that offer a high level of social protection, by the importance of social dialogue and by services of general interest covering activities vital for social cohesion, [this model] is today based, beyond the diversity of the Members States’ social systems, on a common core of values. (European Council 2000b: 14)

Given that it is a model (which is comparable to other models such as, perhaps, the ‘American way of life’), it is said to have a history, which ‘has developed over the last forty years’ (ibid.), despite the fact that the political and social map of Europe forty years ago bore little resemblance to the current one (half of Germany was under Communist rule, Portugal and Spain had fascist regimes, and Greece was an authoritarian monarchy). In this way, we can see how a view of Europe as a homogenous entity with a set of shared values has been constructed. Identifying these common values thus becomes a means of constructing a shared identity, as well as an argument justifying the need for a supranational organisation such as the European Union. The European model is something which does exist in its own right (vis-à-vis the American one), but it is also something that is being constructed (insofar as it is currently undergoing a transformation). It is therefore a model based on two different comparisons: a spatial comparison between the ‘European model’ and the American model, and a comparison in time between the current modernisation of the social model and the model of the past.

Social policies are not simply an outcome of good economic performance and policies but are at the same time an input and a framework. In this context, the modernisation of the social model means developing and adapting it to take account of the rapidly changing economy and society, and to ensure the positive mutually supportive role of economic and social policies. (European Commission 2001a: 5)

Having defined the situation as described above, the EU established a global strategic plan for itself at the Lisbon Summit, which was rather optimistic in tone: ‘to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’ (European Council 2000a: 3).

In order to enable the transition to this new knowledge-based economy, a number of social strategies and actions have been developed with the aim of finding solutions to specific problems such as the balance between supply and demand in the case of the new skills needed in the knowledge-based economy. ‘Europe’s advance into the Information society is a shared responsibility requiring rapid action’ (European Commission 2000: 29). It is here that the EU’s popular discourse on activation turns up with its three key elements: activating the economy, activating individual workers, and activating social welfare. The first element of this strategy of social intervention to create jobs is the activation of the economy. The institutions of the European Union have a key role in providing member states’ economies with access to new technologies, thereby ensuring economic and monetary stability and encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship. Secondly, the EU stresses the importance of activating potential workers by helping individuals to adapt their technical skills and psychological qualities to a new economic order characterised by constant change, fierce competition, and the requirement that workers should be always available and totally committed to their work. The final element of this discourse is the activation of social welfare, which penalises anybody who fails to contribute to the creation of economic wealth and encourages mobility between different social positions.

A.2. Passive adaptation: the discourse of inevitability.

The basis of the EU’s discourse on activation is encapsulated in an assertion that is taken to be self-evident and indisputable: we are already living in a knowledge-based information society. The information society is defined as a global reality which therefore transcends the borders of the EU. ‘The European Union is confronted with a quantum shift resulting from globalisation and the challenges of a new knowledge-driven economy’ (European Council 2000a: 1).

The concept of the knowledge-based information society, which is a term coined by social scientists to refer to recent socio-economic changes, is thus converted into an indisputable fact which is presented in the absolute terms of an objective reality. This phenomenon of presenting a given situation as natural is an ideological process whereby social concepts and explanations are transformed, in this case via discourse, into facts of nature. The main function of this process is to prevent the definition of the situation that has been adopted from being questioned politically. After all, if something is considered to be natural, then it is indisputable, it cannot be questioned, or rather it would be pointless to question it. Nature is not something that you question; all you can do is try to understand it and adapt to it.

Consequently, the basis of this discourse is the very way in which it defines what a knowledge-based information society is: a reality that we have no choice but to accept, the main characteristics of which arise from technical processes that are both economic (the new global economy) and technological (the development of information and communications technologies [ICTs]). As explained above, this reality is presented as natural and hence it is seen to be as inevitable as any other fact of life, meaning that adaptation to it is all that can be done at a political level. In light of the above, it is only logical that the most sensible political approach is the one that makes the most of the new situation. Should any political conflict arise, it will always be of a technical rather than an ideological nature.

Another specific characteristic of the discourse on activation is that by invoking metaphors of both commitment and struggle it ends up being very vague. The concept of a struggle or a fight, which is so evident in the European Union’s discourse, simply serves to reinforce the metaphor of dynamism which underpins the activation model. The rhetoric of commitment appears in the use of various metaphors linked to effort and struggle: for example, the EU is committed to combating unemployment, exclusion, and other social problems. But as we have seen, this struggle is presented as a process of necessary adaptation to something which is inevitable. In effect, this is a passive process, and the EU’s discourse is a discourse of ‘passive activation’. Straehle et al. (1999) come to a similar conclusion after analysing the Presidency Conclusions of Jacques Santer and the speeches of Commissioner Flynn over a period of several years: They demonstrate that ‘a metaphor of struggle is repeatedly invoked in conjunction with (un)employment’ (ibid.: 71). In their analysis of the different uses of the metaphor of struggle, however, they point out that even when ‘struggle’ is employed to refer to the use of specific tools to overcome a particular problem or situation – that is, when it is used in a very concrete type of discourse – the structure of the discourse remains abstract:

More important to note about the kinds of tools used in the struggle against unemployment is that while nouns like strategies and initiatives or verbs such as monitor, examine, and keep track of may appear to a reader or audience to be concrete political interventions, upon closer consideration it is clear that they are actually relatively abstract. ...although these activities seem like material processes [that is, concrete actions], they are, in fact, largely mental processes. (Straehle et al. 1999: 86)

In this, the authors see a paradox: ‘political measures against unemployment, despite being constructed in “active” terms [that is, the EU must take up the “fight” against unemployment], must be embedded in economic actions, which, in the sense of market regulation, are reduced to a minimum, that is, are largely “passive”’ (ibid.: 93).

We have reached a similar conclusion. In our view, the basis of this passive form of activation is a discourse characterised by vagueness. This is an idea which was developed some years ago by the sociologist Uli Windisch to explain xenophobic discourses. In this type of discourse, the individual or player who has carried out or is responsible for an action is not precisely identified. The basic structure used by this discourse is the impersonal form, with impersonal words and phrases such as ‘one’, ‘they’, ‘it’, and ‘there are’ being preferred. In this type of discourse, the whole of society (‘them’ or ‘everyone’) is collectively responsible for the phenomenon in question. In the case studied here, the impersonal element is provided by the reference to an economic reality that is presented as being inevitable.

The developing information society has the potential to transform Europe into a society and economy in which advanced technologies are used to improve the living and working conditions of all citizens. (European Commission 2000a: 3)

These changes are affecting every aspect of people’s lives and require a radical transformation of the European economy. (European Council 2000a: 1)

We could summarise the contradictory nature of the activation discourse in the following table.
Table 2: Contradictory nature of the activation discourse





Active adaptation: European social model (adaptability)


Passive adaptation (Discourse of the unavoidable)

Role of the European institutions

Management of change towards knowledge-based society

To react vis-à-vis new productive paradigm

Type of discourse

Focus on dynamics metaphors (fight, combat, etc.)

Abstract structure

Mental processes (monitor, exchange, examine)

Impersonal forms


Type of intervention

Activate: economy, workers, social protection

Reactive capacity

Social differences

Technical, digital and skills gaps

Individual attitudinal differences

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