Abstract

Analyses regularly feature claims that European welfare states are in the process of creating an adult worker model. The theoretical and empirical basis of this argument is examined here by looking first at the conceptual foundations of the adult worker model formulation and then at the extent to which social policy reform in western Europe fits with the argument. It is suggested that the adult worker formulation is under-specified. A framework incorporating four dimensions—the treatment of individuals vis-à-vis their family role and status for the purposes of social rights, the treatment of care, the treatment of the family as a social institution, and the extent to which gender inequality is problematized—is developed and then applied. The empirical analysis reveals a strong move towards individualization as social policy promotes and valorizes individual agency and self-sufficiency and shifts some childcare from the family. Yet evidence is also found of continued (albeit changed) familism. Rather than an unequivocal move to an individualized worker model then, a dual earner, gender-specialized, family arrangement is being promoted. The latter is the middle way between the old dependencies and the new “independence.” This makes for complexity and even ambiguity in policy, a manifestation of which is that reform within countries involves concurrent moves in several directions.

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