Towards active social policies

Social affairs ministerial meeting, 31 March - 1 April 2005

Time for a change, was how social affairs ministers summed up their major meeting at the OECD in March–the first in seven years. Rather than merely insuring against misfortune, social policies must become pro-active, stressing investment in people’s capabilities and the realisation of their potential.

Under the banner, “Extending opportunities: How active social policy can benefit us all”, ministers agreed that economic growth was a critical element in providing support for families and reducing the need for government assistance. But it was a two-way street: effective economic policies were complementary to effective social policies in extending opportunities and mobilising assets, while effective social policies were necessary to generate economic dynamism and contribute to flexible labour markets. Good social policies would ensure that childhood experiences did not lead to disadvantage in adulthood, while ensuring a sustainable system of support for the elderly.

The main conclusions of the meeting covered four broad areas. First, social and family policies must help give children and young people the best possible start to their lives and help them to develop and achieve through their childhood into adulthood. Providing all parents with better choices about how to balance work and family life extends opportunities, especially for women, and creates economic gains. More family-friendly policies could also help raise birth rates in those countries where they are too low.

Second, attaining a better social balance between generations is, and will long remain, one of the most important challenges facing OECD countries. The social and financial sustainability of pension systems needs to be improved.

Third, family breakdown, the need to care for family members, illness, or the loss of a job can all lead to long-term joblessness unless appropriate social support is in place. Social policy can lower poverty by reducing barriers to employment, supporting self-sufficiency, and by providing adequate benefits for those who cannot work. “We should end the unjustified assumption that some groups, such as lone parents, older workers, people with disabilities and people on social assistance for a long time cannot or should not work,” ministers said. The reassessment of the OECD Jobs Strategy should identify policies which will help end labour market exclusion.

Fourth, these social policy challenges must be a shared responsibility. Common purpose is needed among all concerned (including employers, workers, their respective representative organisations, all levels of government, individuals, communities and a broad range of nongovernment organisations) in order to better align economic dynamism with social objectives. Individual beneficiaries of social programmes have responsibilities to contribute to their own development.

Ministers concluded by inviting the OECD to carry out further work in the following areas: well-being of children and support for families; future social and economic implications of pension policies; disabled people in the labour market; a new balance between rights and responsibilities in social security; and life risks, life course and social policy. The 2005 meeting was chaired by Aart Jan de Geus, the Dutch minister of social affairs and employment, with Ms. Berit Andnor, Sweden’s social affairs minister, and Geun Tae Kim, Korea’s minister for health and welfare, acting as vice-chairs.

©OECD Observer No 249, May 2005

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