The fragile economic recovery across Europe has left millions of individuals worse off, both in and out of work. Unemployment has decreased in 2014, but is still far too high and new job creation is too slow. These facts are brought home in a recently published EU report, Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2014.
In a massive tome of statistics and data on economic performance from across Europe, researchers provide a comprehensive rain check of where we are, six years after the onset of the recession and financial crisis of 2008.
Economic performance is stuttering forwards, but both output and employment remain at below pre-crisis levels. Some states have weathered the crisis better than others. Around 9 million more people are out of work compared with 2008 and youth and long term unemployment are particular areas of concern.
Unlike in past recessions however, labour market activity rates have continued to increase. Women and older people are more likely to be in work now than in 2008 – an experience not witnessed in previous recessions.
There is something inconsistent here however. I pointed it out at an "Experts' Conference" in Brussels, launching the report on 29 January. Quite simply, the EU's long standing position on demographic change demanding that we extend our working lives, does not fit with the cut-off point of age 64 for the data collected in the report. Surely, we need insights into the comparative experiences of the whole of the workforce, not just some of it.
Many more would work in later life if they only had the chance. Surveys tell the story, but there is nothing like some good hard statistical facts to make the point that more should be done. The many older people whom we know are willing to work if the right kind of job were available, are being air-brushed out of the statistics.
The EU report calls for structural changes to support "human capital formation" (in other words, a more skilled, talented, capable workforce), which must be supported by an increase in the supply of quality jobs. Points about the inequality of provision and the necessity for investment in learning are made time and again.
"The most competitive countries in the EU are those which invest a higher share of GDP in education and have high participation in formal non-formal education and training."
In the context of a Gallup poll finding that only one third of employees experienced real commitment to their job and organisation, it becomes clear these elements need to be embraced by "age management" approaches and building learning organisations drawing on social dialogue with employees.
"Support for innovation", "fostering learning," and so on are not merely words and grand sounding goals, they are practical outcomes important for economic success. Successfully building work organisations that are at once engaging, learning and enriching will be more likely to create jobs that workers themselves will both want and deserve – human centred, enriching, productive and sustainable.
Giving workers more autonomy and responsibility in the way they organise their jobs, could strengthen the EU's innovation capacity, but note the shift here from a grand policy objective to the manner in which work is managed and planned at the micro level.
The EU cannot make such changes happen of course, but, if National Governments and employers work together with work people themselves, the stronger economies we all want can be carefully constructed from the bottom upwards.