Making social policy work

Secretary-General of the OECD

The OECD is once again hosting a meeting of social policy ministers. The last meeting took place seven years ago. Then, priorities and challenges were identified that needed to be addressed urgently in OECD countries. Many of these issues are still on the agenda today.

But this does not mean that little has happened in the years since. On the contrary, we have seen much progress everywhere. Let me just cite three examples: pensioner poverty has been all but eradicated in most countries; many OECD countries have embraced an employment-oriented approach to social policy; and policies to help men and women reconcile the demands of work and family life are being introduced in more and more countries.

This approach fits nicely with what I call the triangular paradigm of progress, anchored in one corner by economic growth, in the other by social cohesion or social stability, with good governance anchoring the third. That is where social policy is found, in support of the equilibrium of the triangle. Growth without a transfer of its benefits through appropriate social policy to society as a whole will ensure neither sustained economic nor social progress. And jobs are the most effective and productive mechanism to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are widely shared. That is why embracing an employment-oriented approach to social policy is so critical. After all, in a knowledge-based society, human capital is the most important contributor to growth.

We have made progress in the field of social policy, but we should not be complacent. Too many children continue to be exposed to poverty. Too many people in their prime age are excluded from employment, with little chance of ever working again. Too many women still find it impossible to combine work and family obligations, and end up foregoing good careers. And too many older persons spend the last years of their lives in isolation and dependency. Traditional social policy measures have not been able to solve these problems. It is time to change our approach. We need new solutions to old problems. And we need to find them urgently, before ageing and the pressure it is putting on government budgets further restrict manoeuvring space.

Moreover, I was disturbed to read the following in an article in New Scientist: “The rich are getting richer while the poor remain poor…ponder these numbers from the US…In 1979, the top 1%...earned on average 33.1 times as much as the lowest 20%. In 2000, this multiplier had grown to 88.5%. If inequality is growing in the US, what does this mean for other countries?”

There may be many reasons for this trend, but surely a more active social policy could help arrest it. “Old” social policy was based on a series of assumptions: the different stages in an individual’s life, such as childhood, study, work and retirement, were thought to be clearly marked and separated. Gender roles within families were clearer–women stayed at home with the children and men went to work, generally to full-time jobs. Nuclear families stayed together–divorce and separation were rare.

The world has changed. In most OECD countries, reality is different. Life patterns are more flexible as people switch between work, education and retirement. More and more women are earning their own income and sometimes they are the main breadwinners in the household. Children are less and less likely to spend their entire childhood living with both their biological parents. Couples separate and form families with new partners, or decide to stay single. The previously “atypical” career–one that is interrupted or unstable–is now becoming more typical.

Social policies need to adjust to these new arrangements and the stresses they bring if they are to be effective. Helping people is insufficient on its own. Good social policies must aim to prevent rather than cure distress. That means tackling the economic and social conditions in which people live. The new, active approach to social policy has two goals, with two different time frames. On the one hand, we must spend now to meet today’s needs, and on the other, we must start investing now to pre-empt future social distress.

Four principles form the core of the OECD’s active social policy agenda: first, social policies have to give children the best possible start in life; second, social policies have to help individuals overcome barriers to work; third, social policies must help reconcile work and family life; and finally, social policies have to become less age-dependent.

There is a variety of policy initiatives to be explored within each of these principles. Through the 2005 social policy ministerial and beyond, we must work hard with governments and stakeholders to produce some fresh, innovative approaches that can help us translate economic success into further social progress. Our economies depend on it.

©OECD Observer No 248, March 2005

Economic data


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Read some of the insightful remarks made at OECD Forum 2017, held on 6-7 June. OECD Forum kick-started events with a focus on inclusive growth, digitalisation, and trust, under the overall theme of Bridging Divides.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • How do the largest community of British expats living in Spain feel about Brexit? Britons living in Orihuela Costa, Alicante give their views.
  • Brexit is taking up Europe's energy and focus, according to OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. Watch video.
  • OECD Chief Economist Catherine Mann and former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King discuss the economic merits of a US border adjustment tax and the outlook for US economic growth.
  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2017