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Interdisciplinary research: labour market on the move

Migration, globalisation, technological developments, climate change: the greatest challenges of our time all affect our labour market. But how exactly? And can we influence this? Professor of Economics Olaf van Vliet regards it as his job to reveal how things really are. ‘That way, we can work on solutions based on knowledge rather than our intuition.’

People who study the labour market have to take a broad view. Van Vliet says it himself: ‘There is never just an economic side to it. There is also the administrative side or the social side. Consider the tight labour market in the Westland region. From an economic viewpoint, you might say: “We’ll bring workers from Eastern Europe to the Netherlands to fill those jobs. Problem solved.” But the arrival of those workers would simultaneously strain the already crowded housing market. And what happens to a neighbourhood if suddenly it is full of Eastern European migrants? Or consider the increasingly flexible nature of the labour market: parcel delivery drivers who have to work around the clock and have no buffers... These are interesting developments from a sociological or anthropological perspective.’

Everything needs to be considered before you can choose particular evidence-based solutions or policies. This makes interdisciplinarity and close collaboration between faculties and universities indispensable, Van Vliet argues. With this in mind, Leiden University set up the interdisciplinary research programme Social Citizenship & Migration about four years ago. In this programme, scholars from various fields work together to research migration: they study the topic from the perspectives of economics, law, public administration, political science, history and anthropology. Van Vliet leads this programme, which means he has a finger in a lot of pies. 

Olaf van Vliet: ‘A lot of the things you hear in the news have some link to the topics we are investigating.’

Wide-ranging research

‘Numerous projects and collaborations are emerging from this research programme. Not only within this university, but beyond: we collaborate with the universities in Delft and Rotterdam and with institutes across Europe.’ For example, the European Commission-funded project TransEuroWorkS was recently launched. Van Vliet is leading this study, which is being conducted by a broad international consortium. It focuses on how social changes around the world are affecting the labour market and what the implications are for social welfare and political preferences. ‘It’s a wide-ranging project’, he says. ‘A lot of the things you hear in the news have some link to the topics we are investigating.’

He explains: ‘When you talk about the big social issues of our time – migration, climate change, digitalisation – in an economic sense, you quickly find yourself talking about shrinking and growing sectors. For example, digitalisation is causing the loss of thousands of jobs in banking, while the advent of smartphones has created a lot of jobs in the technology sector. So growth and shrinkage, but you can’t get workers to move from one sector to another in a day. You can see something similar happening as a result of the climate crisis. In the coming years, employment in “brown” sectors based on fossil fuels will shrink, while the more sustainable “green” sectors will gain more jobs. This presumably means people will have to retrain. Another thing you’ll see is jobs disappearing to other countries or people coming here for work. So again, migration is closely related to what our labour market looks like. We are researching many aspects of this and are sharing our findings with policymakers. Where possible, we make recommendations.’

‘We hope to contribute to a nuanced debate.’

Explosive topics

Of course, Van Vliet is aware that he is investigating ‘explosive’ topics, especially when it comes to migration and climate change. ‘That’s also why we stay as close to the facts as possible and choose our communication carefully. In this way, we hope to contribute to a nuanced debate. That is important; we share our results at ministries, with civil servants and in politics. It is then up to them to make the policy choices. For example, I recently shared my findings on migration with the Lower House, at their invitation.’

Among the topics discussed there was the recent paper about the effects migrants from Central and Eastern Europe have on public finances. ‘You often hear the assumption that migrants cost us more than they deliver because they supposedly use a lot of services. But we found no evidence of this. As things stand, these migrants use fewer services than native Dutch people. The migrants tend to be young people who work and pay taxes and social security contributions while making relatively little use of social safety nets. Interestingly, we are now comparing different countries for this study. Can the same pattern be observed in France as in the Netherlands? In which case, you have to keep in mind that France may attract different migrants than the Netherlands, and that it has a different tax system, which in turn generates different effects.’

Van Vliet then offers a brief, enthusiastic summary of the ongoing studies in his research group. ‘Another interesting project is the research I’m working on with a PhD candidate about the connection between people’s versatility on the labour market and their support for climate policy. Our hypothesis is that people might be critical of climate policies because they fear for their own jobs, so we’re examining whether their flexibility on the job market affects how they view climate policy. And that seems to be correct: the more versatile, the more positive. Now the most recent IPCC report has shown that the climate transition must accelerate even more, this is something to bear in mind.’

‘It has taken years, but now the politicians are on board’


A topic close to Van Vliet’s heart is the flexibilisation of the labour market. ‘Do you know the film Sorry We Missed You? It’s about a delivery driver who gets all tangled up because he’s squeezed as a self-employed worker. That’s exactly what our research on the tax allowance for the self-employed is about. Look, about half of the self-employed can manage just fine and have enough income to build up a buffer. But the other half cannot. That group includes the delivery drivers who work day and night and have accrued no pension and no reserves. At the same time, employers use the allowance as an argument to reduce rates, which, of course, is not the idea behind it. So we have recommended that this allowance be phased out sooner.’

How does Van Vliet view the pace at which relevant research finds its way into practice? ‘I think in small steps, and about what really can be done. Take the mortgage interest deduction: economists have been calling for it to be abolished for 30 years. It has taken years, but now the politicians are on board. Eventually, things really do change. And I hope under the pressure of current issues, a little faster. At least we as researchers are doing our best to achieve that.’

Text: Nienke Ledegang / Leidraad

Olaf van Vliet

In addition to his professorship, Olaf van Vliet is head of the Department of Economics, a professor at the Institute of Public Administration and a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

As a researcher, he leads three major research programmes. He is programme leader of Social ­Citizenship & Migration, one of Leiden University’s interdisciplinary research programmes. He also leads the TransEuroWorkS research programme and heads the study Flexibilisation, Globalisation and Technological Change: Consequences for Labour Markets and Social Security. His chair is partly endowed by the Gak Institute.

More Leiden research

PhD candidate Emily Anne Wolff’s research at the Institute of Public Administration in the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs focuses on the comparative political economy of inequality. Her ongoing research investigates the symbolic and legal inclusion and exclusion of migrants and citizens in post-war Europe. This research is part of the Vidi project Borders of Equality, which analyses the relationship between the evolution of welfare states and immigration policy.

Comparative European economyAlexandre Afonso’s research focuses on the comparative political economy of European countries, and the relationship between welfare states, labour market institutions and immigration. Afonso is an associate professor at the Institute of Public Administration in the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. His research has included a study on trade union responses to EU labour migration.

Welfare state 2.0Anouk de Koning is an associate professor in the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, where she co-directs the interfaculty research programme Social Citizenship & Migration. She is leading the research project ‘The Welfare State 2.0: Experiments in State and Society’, in which she examines how local welfare projects influence the welfare state. De Koning received a Vici grant for this project.

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