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Europe needs inventive thinking

Interview with Niels Rosendal Jensen

Unemployment is increasing in Europe and the traditional systems can clearly not solve today’s problems. It requires inventive thinking and a different type of interaction between political authorities and civil society, says Niels Rosendal Jensen, Associate Professor at Aarhus University and Manager of the VERSO project.

- Nations have traditionally different models for how individual citizens must handle unemployment problems. To put it roughly you might say that in some parts of Europe, citizens are referred to public welfare packages, in other parts the market is expected to solve problems and then we see parts where the family is expected to step in. Common for these three models is clearly that none of them is the answer to Europe’s current problems. We must study this circumstance further to better understand how we can mobilise volunteers – individuals and organisations alike - to solve the tasks that cannot be solved within traditional ways of thinking, explains Mr Rosendal Jensen.

A tool box for regional political authorities

- European regional political authorities are faced with certain challenges. Some must revitalize societies that have more or less come to a halt. They focus on how to generate dynamism that can revive local communities by means of resources in civil society and voluntarism together with the public sector. And they need concrete tools to solve that task, says Mr Rosendal Jensen.

The researcher also points out that the regions in Europe differ greatly. In Southern Europe the youth unemployment rate is nearly 50 per cent and millions of well-educated youths cannot enter the labour market, while in other parts of Europe the challenge is a high number of elderly unemployed industrial workers with no educational qualifications.

- The researchers in VERSO will identify what actually works and provide the participating regional political authorities with a relevant ‘toolbox’ at the end of the project. We conduct evidence-based analyses of good practices from eight different regions in Europe, where regional political authorities have joined forces with volunteers in civic society to counteract unemployment. We will work our way to the core and identify ‘what works’. A critical challenge in this work is how to ‘de-contextualize’ existing experiences to make them transferable from one European context to another, adds Mr Rosendal Jensen.

Informal learning processes

- Another aspect is the fact that several processes of informal learning and informal competence development are at play in the volunteers’ social networks, which can be instrumental in sharpening skills that are relevant for future positions or vocation. The volunteers may, for instance, undergo non-formal learning that the educational system or other institutionalised systems cannot provide. For the individual it may be a pathway to new employment, says Mr Rosendal Jensen.

However, Mr Rosendal Jensen stresses that the aim is not to reduce civic voluntarism to a competence tool to get unemployed into the established, traditional job market. Volunteerism can be instrumental in creating new types of social spaces capable of including or connecting with marginalized groups whose employment needs are not currently met by the established employment systems. Such new social spaces (cafés, workshops, cinemas, festivals, TV-stations) can be examples of new and more flexible non-formal service formats expanding the scope of existing employment services.

Social cohesion in Europe

VERSO offers a new partnership between regional political authorities and research institutions across Europe. Public authorities have a very real interest in having concrete tools developed to tackle problems of unemployment, but the researchers’ work extends beyond that.

- VERSO gives the participating research institutions an opportunity to make comparative analyses of what generates social dynamics and prevents new social dynamics from developing across Europe. Social cohesion is a core concept, Mr Rosendal Jensen explains and continues: “The basic structure of Europe requires everyone to work, but what becomes of social cohesion when large segments of the population are outside the labour market?”

- When the EU points to the voluntary sector as a crucial factor in tackling problems, it is an attempt to reinforce some of the social cohesion we fear is eroding. If we cannot create social cohesion qua the labour market because a certain number of people are excluded, we must identify other ways to do so, concludes Mr Rosendal Jensen.

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Revised 2012.06.19