Around the world, the concept of flexible working practices,(1) the extent of such practices and the implications for practitioners and policy makers in the area, have been much discussed. These are critical issues for employers, trade unions and governments. In Europe, in particular, recent opinions from the European Court of Justice have raised the political profile of the subject and the Commission, the civil service of the European Union (EU), is committed to further action on this issue in 1997. This article uses evidence from Europe to explore the implications for the state, for individuals and for employers.(2)
The paper presents evidence on developments in flexible working from European countries. In this discussion, "flexible working" covers only working time and contractual variations (temporary contracts, outsourcing etc). The paper summarises the debates on the topic; outlines the reasons for the massive growth in flexible working that has been seen in Europe; and draws conclusions about the implications for governments, individuals and for employers.
THEORIES OF LABOUR FLEXIBILITY
The concept of "labor flexibility" remains, both in theoretical and practical terms, highly problematic. Despite the huge volume of literature devoted to the so-called "flexibility debate" relatively little progress has been made in resolving many of the problems associated with the concept.
In the literature, the term "flexibility" is applied to a series of quite distinct (if related) theories. There are those which have been labelled "post-Fordist": a category which covers a range of variants, but is characterized by the work of such writers as Piore and Sabel (1984), Mathews (1989a, 1989b, 1990, 1992), Lash and Urry (1987), Katz (1985), Kern and Schumann (1987), Tolliday and Zeitlin (1986) and Streeck (1987). For these writers, who generally concentrate on the manufacturing industry, new technology is the key to a more flexible form of production, more responsive to increasingly rapid changes in the market: such developments may depend for their success upon a more skilled, motivated and flexible workforce. The focus of this stream of writing has been on production systems rather than employment. A more critical, "neo-Marxian" (Clegg, 1990, pp. 21 1) or "neo-Fordist" Wood (1989b, p. 21) group of writers has also been concerned with flexible production, though taking a more negative view of its likely effect on individuals and including discussion of the impact on labour markets (Bramble, 1988; Bramble & Fieldes, 1989, 1992; Harvey, 1989, 1991). An alternative conception of flexibility is provided by researchers in the operational management area.
Finally, and most relevantly here, there has also been an important set of literature focussed on employment flexibility: labelled by some as "managerialist" (Bagguley, 1991: 164) or "neo-managerialist" (Clegg, 1990, p. 210) and typified by the work of Atkinson (1984, 1985a, 1985b, 1987; Atkinson & Gregory, 1986; Atkinson & Meager, 1986). His work has been subjected to critiques which have attempted to demonstrate the limited utility and lack of theoretical robustness of his work, rather than attempting to build upon the insights which it provides or to develop a more comprehensive theoretical framework based on it - some, indeed, attempted to deny the growth of flexibility (see for example: Pollert, 1988a, 1988b). Nonetheless, Atkinson's work has been extremely influential. His vision of flexibility has influenced policy debates internationally (OECD, 1986a, 1989).
REASONS FOR THE GROWTH OF FLEXIBILITY
Atkinson (1985a) argues that three main factors have contributed to moves to greater flexibility. The first two concern economic difficulties experienced by the advanced economies in recent times. The argument is that, since the late 1960s or early 1970s, the advanced capitalist economies have been in crisis (Boyer, 1987; Harvey, 1989; Piore & Sabel, 1984; Mathews, 1989a, 1989b) and that the drive for more flexibility is dictated by the need to overcome the crisis (Meulders and Wilkin, 1987, p. 16). More typically, perhaps, neo-managerialist theory essentially presents flexibility as a pragmatic managerial response (Bagguley, 1991, p. 153) to a given set of circumstances, the cause of which is not at issue.
Atkinson (1985a, 1987) provides a brief, largely descriptive, account of economic pressures for greater flexibility, in terms of generalised recession and an increasingly competitive and volatile market environment. Recession, he argues, has made increased competitiveness a management priority, and in an environment unconducive to investment, this has involved management reliance on increased labor productivity and reductions in unit labor cost (Atkinson, 1985a).
Pressure for greater flexibility is also said to derive from the "particularly unstable and (since 1945) unprecedented market conditions experienced in recent years" (Atkinson, 1987, p. 88). In addition to increased competition, and in the context of slow growth, markets have become more volatile, with a correspondingly greater immediacy between the recognition of market opportunities or pressures and the need to respond to them. Uncertainty about demand has led to uncertainty about labor requirements, and employers have sought ways to make labor both cheaper and more easily variable in quantity (Atkinson, 1985a).
The third factor said to necessitate greater flexibility is technological change. Technology is changing more quickly than ever before. This, it is said, necessitates the creation of a workforce which is able to adapt to the demands of new technologies as they emerge. Such adaptability allows enterprises to obtain maximum advantage from advances in technology. Furthermore, technology is characterised by computer controlled production systems. While not always the case, in some instances the new technologies have led to a blurring of the distinction between conception and execution of tasks. In such cases, workers need to be more highly skilled and sophisticated since they are required to perform a wider range of more complex tasks than has been typical (Atkinson, 1985a). Therefore, the general effect of technological change has been to increase the need for a workforce which can be redeployed to new and/or more complex jobs as necessary.
The net effect of this combination of economic and technological pressures is said to be a situation in which:
Employers are increasingly looking for a workforce which can respond quickly, easily and cheaply to changes ...; such a workforce will be able to contract as readily as it expands to meet market requirements; such a workforce must not result in increased unit labor costs ...; finally it must be capable of deployment over time to meet the needs of the job exactly through recourse to a range of working time options (Atkinson, 1985a, p. 9).
Others have argued that some elements at least of the drive for greater flexibility come from labor market "pull" - the opportunity it provides for sections of the labor market that would not otherwise be available for work or to retain valued staff who would otherwise leave.
There are a significant number of flexible workers who prefer to work in that way (Social Europe, 1991; Wareing, 1992). Almost certainly, this will include some people who are justifying to themselves the employment pattern that they have, in reality, been forced to accept. The …