Available in PDF format  

Joachim Vogel and Irene Wennemo

Three European Models of Society

Joachim Vogel

Synopsis: In modern societies, the larger part of human welfare is provided by three primary institutions-- the family, the labour market and the state. Societies may be differentiated according to the roles played by these institutions and their relationships to each other. In that regard, Europe appears to be divided into three distinct clusters of fairly similar societies:
  • the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden
  • the Southern European countries of Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal
  • most of the continental countries in between, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg and Belgium.

The Nordic model combines an extensive social insurance system with labour market policies that promote full employment, equal opportunity and an equitable distribution of wealth. The broad-based labour market supports an extensive public sector and social insurance system by widening the tax base and limiting the need for direct intervention by social authorities.

Thus, the lowest levels of socio-economic inequality and poverty in the industrial world are associated with a strong state and a strong market which reinforce each other.

In contrast, the Southern European countries combine a weak state and a weak market with a correspondingly heavy reliance on the traditional family. In this type of society, the family serves to limit the effects of poverty and socio-economic inequality, especially in the case of young adults and the elderly. But levels of poverty and inequality are high, and a personal price is paid by women, young people and the elderly in the form of financial dependence on middle-aged patriarchs, who in turn bear a heavy burden of responsibility.

Inequality Index
Disposable Household Income, 1994

 The higher the index value, the greater
the inequality between households.



Future in doubt

During the past twenty years or so, there appears to have occurred a gradual weakening of both the Nordic and the Southern European models. Long-term social trends, particularly that of greater equality between the sexes, have the effect of undermining the patriarchal family.

As for the Nordic countries, they have in recent years been subjected to a political-economic ideology which calls for a minimal state and maximal reliance on the market. The result has been a weakening of both, for the reasons noted above. For Sweden and Finland in particular, the 1990s were a decade of economic crisis that has diminished the capacity of the labour market to support public services and social insurance systems.

Nevertheless, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark remain in a class by themselves with regard to the nature and extent of social programmes, employment levels, and the distribution of wealth. Nor is there any widespread political support for the current trend toward weaker national governments and less ambitious social insurance systems. Opinion surveys in Sweden, for example, have disclosed mounting public support for the public sector and basic social insurance programmes.

However, the Nordic countries comprise an island of egalitarianism in a sea of neo-liberalism, with its evident tendency toward increasing class divisions; and there are strong forces at work to ensure that the Nordic model of society is dismantled. At this point in history, the future of that model appears to be in doubt.

Note: The complete text of Joachim Vogel's address to the seminar is not available. But two other documents which cover essentially the same ground are. The shorter version is intended for a general public. There is also a more complex and detailed treatment of the same issues in a professional treatise presented at a conference of the International Sociological Association; available here in PDF format.

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Joachim Vogel has been on the staff of Statistics Sweden since 1964, where he has concentrated on the areas of social research, social indicators, survey research, survey methodology and general social statistics. He is the author/editor of national social reports for Sweden over three decades, and has served as advisor to several governmental committees on social policy. He has also worked on the development of social indicators, social reporting and comparative surveys for the European Union, and is currently involved in several comparative projects, including social reports for the European Union over the past six years.