Robert Solow (2008) - Low-wage Work in Europe and America

Robert Solow (2008)

Low-wage Work in Europe and America

Robert Solow (2008)

Low-wage Work in Europe and America

Abstract

In my lecture at the first Lindau meeting four years ago, I described the plans for a large research project sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, comparing the conditions of low-wage work in the U.S. and in five European countries (Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, United Kingdom). In order to achieve comparability, we intended not only an overview of the low-wage labor market in each country, but also a detailed study of wages and other aspects of job quality in five specific low-wage jobs that are found everywhere. The ultimate goal was to trace any substantial inter-country differences to the historical, legal, institutional and competitive factors that underlie them.

That project is now essentially complete. Five volumes have been published (one on low-wage work in each of the European countries)and the final explicitly comparative volume is expected next spring. In this lecture I plan to review a few of the main conclusions that seem to emerge.

For example, the incidence of low-wage work varies dramatically from country to country: there is proportionally three times as much low-wage work in the U.S. as in Denmark, with the other countries scattered between those extremes. The trend is generally, though not universally, upward; some countries have gone from relatively low incidence to relatively high incidence in a matter of a few decades. There are also cross-country similarities, in the role of women, the young, and immigrants for instance. We find that the conventional contrast between low wages and high employment of unskilled workers in the U.S. versus higher wages and low employment in Europe is not nearly as clear as expected. The research also explores the important role of minimum wages, collective bargaining, and public provision of health care and pensions.

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