The issue: Vive la différence

Ferry Koster is a labour and organisational sociologist with Erasmus University and the University of Amsterdam. Together with his colleague sociologist Paul de Beer he conducted a wide-scale study into differences and inequality between groups and generations: “Solidarity in the 21st century: Aging, immigration and solidarity”.

Differences in the Netherlands can be bridged, says the recent report Difference in the Netherlands by The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP). The same report warns against an “imminent cohesion problem”, however, that looms between the different strata of the population, such as between young and old, rich and poor, immigrant and native Dutch. Sociologist Ferry Koster is researching how things stand when it comes to solidarity between groups, and which circumstances promote solidarity. 


Text: Daan Rutten

According to the SCP, the Netherlands is still a predominantly “meritocratic”, “open” society, where your socio-cultural origin is still a lot less decisive than your ability to learn and your willingness to take chances. Yet there is a risk that differences are widening. Is this dangerous?

“Let me say at the outset: in and of itself, difference is not a bad thing, as the SCP also says. There simply are differences between people and between groups and there always will be. And if you are talking about the difference between rich and poor, alarm bells don’t necessarily have to start ringing immediately. The chance that you will manage to work your way up and improve your economic position is still fairly high in the Netherlands. In the United States, they would like to believe in 'the American dream’ but the numbers say that you are more likely to realise that dream in Western Europe than you are in North America.”


But you also say in your study into solidarity that there is "friction" in the Netherlands. The different groups are coming to be "diametrically opposed" to each other in the start of the 21st century.

“Uncertainty about one’s own future, prompted by the economic crisis, is placing those relationships on edge. Who is to get what part of what is left? The neoliberal crisis measures of recent years, or the dismantling of the provisions of the welfare state, are setting a movement in motion where people have to be more self-reliant. Yet labels like “difference” or “inequality" can muddy the waters here. Initially, the welfare state could create more equality, but in the long run we see that there are all types of social mechanisms at work that create distinctions in an obtuse way. Once everyone is well-educated, people still always try to distinguish themselves to get a job. A social network then becomes important, for example, called “social capital” by sociologists. And who has a large social network? You know it, the ones with well-educated parents, who were already rich. These children have that much of an easier time climbing the ladder than others do. They go to the best university, or get the best job. Differences never disappear. It is just the dividing line that moves.”


But are the differences in a true welfare state not a bit more tolerable?

“That is why I am not a proponent of eliminating the welfare state. If citizens are left entirely to rely on their individuality, that will lead to certain groups being at greater risk than others. The SCP is already talking about a large group in the Netherlands whose situation is "precarious", including those with limited education and immigrants. This concerns thirty per cent of the population. They can often just get by, often have debts, and if they become unemployed, it is difficult for them to find a job. In this era of globalisation, they are the most susceptible to the loss of jobs to low-wage countries, for example. It is distasteful to hold all these people responsible for their lack of affluence, because an individual doesn’t stand a chance against globalisation. With a welfare state at least you can ensure that as many people as possible can enjoy a good education, including the children born in groups that are having it tough. If you are well-educated, then you are at least increasing your chances. By the way, being well-educated is not necessarily the same as being highly educated. I think we should not get fixated on just creating ‘highly educated people’, as has happened in recent years. Because being highly educated doesn’t automatically mean one will have it easy.”


You can say that again. New graduates are having a terrible time finding a job. Is that a sign that there is a deep gap gradually developing between poor young people on the one hand and the well-off baby boomers on the other?

“Surprisingly, the survey reveals that there actually is not a big generational conflict in the making. Young and old have predominantly positive views towards each other, even if the media seems to suggest otherwise. Young people are willing to help elders, for example with odd jobs. Elders like to help younger people, for example by babysitting. In times of crisis and unemployment, it is always so that unemployment is highest among young people. That does not mean that the situation is not worrisome. Young people seem to be finding themselves in a sort of grey economy or even black economy. Businesses could really use them, but don’t want to pay for them. Young people pile unpaid internship on top of unpaid internship in the hopes of ultimately being able to really start their career. You could say, don’t take the internship and demand a job, but that is not how it works. Here, too, we see that you can’t just say like the “neoliberals” that one is responsible for oneself. There have to be opportunities and those opportunities are just simply not there at the moment. Politicians are not doing anything about this problem, however. The great hope is that the economy will pick up and the problem will solve itself. The question is whether more should not be done. Cynically enough, young people and old people have common ground here as well, because the old people of today went through the 'No future' days of the eighties and tremendous unemployment among the young."


So the young and old can help each other?

“What the study into solidarity shows is that solidarity is possible precisely when there is a difference between groups and generations. Why else would we help each other? Difference is a precondition for solidarity. Solidarity often comes about on its own when an individual or a group realises that another person or another group needs help. In addition, you gain extra solidarity between groups when it becomes apparent that the group needing help is willing to do something in exchange. Both the young and old often see in each other that they need help and that they can do something for each other. But that mutual acknowledgment is often drowned out by a narrative that is all about vying for money. I was at a gathering of old and young people once and as soon as talk turned to money, accusations were flying back and forth and it was all very counterproductive. But as soon as the question was shifted to 'What can old people learn from young people and vice versa?’ and ‘What can we mean to each other?’, suddenly a range of possibilities seemed to be raised. Young people have qualities and knowledge they can use to make the lives of old people more pleasant, and inversely there is a high degree of willingness among old people, who have a wealth of experience in business, to act as mentors for young people. These types of initiatives, in this case targeting the labour market, can work very well. Young parties and old parties can also try to meet on common ground, instead of getting sucked up into the conflict being orchestrated in the media.”


Finally, this. A portion of the SCP report concerns the contrast between Islamic and Western ideas, which has once again risen to the top of the agenda due to the recent attack on the editors of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Although the report says that citizens of foreign origin, many of them Islamic, are slowly but surely climbing the economic ladder, the SCP also says that the socio-cultural contrast is only widening. Does that socio-cultural contrast contribute towards extremism?

“First of all, I think one cannot draw such a clear link between the problem of extremism and the problem of diversity. Even if we see some research in which diversity and solidarity go less well together, or that diversity even undermines solidarity, my point here is mainly that extremism and terrorism are of a different order. Mutual comprehension and solidarity in a diverse, multi-ethnic neighbourhood can be enhanced, for example, by organising festivities together. Radicalism, on the other hand, is not smoothed over with a neighbourhood barbecue. Extremism is not simple to resolve, but requires in any case that attempts are made to tackle radicalism and to detain people as soon as they commit attacks.” 

The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.