Opinion & Analysis

Globalisation and automation as sources of labour-market competition, and support for European Union unemployment insurance

Executive summary

Societies and economies are experiencing deep and intertwined structural changes that may unsettle the perceptions European citizens have of their economic and employment security. Such labour-market perceptions are likely in turn to alter people’s political positions. For instance, those worried by labour-market competition may prefer greater social protection to compensate for the accrued risk, or might prefer more closed economies where external borders provide protection (or the illusion of protection). We test these expectations with a conjoint experiment in 13 European countries on European-level social policy, studying how citizens’ demands align with parties’ political supply. Results broadly corroborate our expectations on the moderating effects of different types of concerns about perceived sources of labour-market competition on the features of preferred European-level social policy.


Societies in Europe and elsewhere are experiencing deep and intertwined changes that unsettle the perceptions citizens have of their economic and employment security. Among the many changes raising concerns about labour market competition, globalisation, technological change and international migration stand out. These structural changes in the global economy have had a deep impact on western industrial societies: workers may be afraid that employers will relocate firms abroad to reduce employment costs, may fear unskilled migration exerting downward pressure on domestic wages and/or may fear technological change that might make many jobs redundant. Individuals with these fears and citizens that are less fearful are likely to have preferences that are substantially different with respect to social policy: those worried about the various threats to labour-market competition might prefer greater social security to compensate for the accrued risk, or prefer more closed economies where external borders provide protection (or the illusion of protection).

Scholarship supports the expectations that globalisation, migration and automation might each spark significant work-related insecurities, and also that one or another of such insecurities might influence support for compensation or protection. Globalisation, in particular, plays a central role in the scholarly understanding of political attitudes and preferences (see Walter 2021 for a comprehensive review). However, very few studies have been able to systematically connect how different labour market risks associate with different social-policy preferences, partly given the challenges of combining such issues in opinion surveys, ideally in an experimental set up that allows disentangling of the sources of risk and policy solutions envisioned to address such risks. For instance, Gallego et al (2022) devised a survey experiment to assess support for policy responses to technological concerns only. Rodrik and Di Tella (2020) looked at policies demanded by individuals exposed to technology or globalisation shocks. Original works by Aldrich et al (1999), Rueda (2005; 2006) and Burgoon and Dekker (2010) looked at employment status and certain social-policy preferences. But the effects of different perceived sources of labour-market vulnerabilities for different policy preferences remain understudied and hence unclear.

This paper builds on the sparce literature that explores how perceptions of vulnerability are associated with support for particular kinds of social policy (Walter and Maduz, 2009; Emmenegger, 2009; Burgoon and Dekker, 2010; Vlandas, 2020), or with social policies associated with particular party orientations (Marx, 2013; Dancygier and Walter, 2015; Negri, 2019; Kurer and Palier, 2019; Gingrich, 2019; Häusermann et al, 2020; Marx and Picot, 2020). We first explore how concerns about different sources of labour-market insecurities affect specific social-policy demands with respect to key characteristics of realistically-debated European Union unemployment programmes. We then consider how concerns about different sources of insecurity affect support for the distinct social-policy positions of political families (Häusermann et al, 2013), looking at how ideal-typical EU social policy packages for the left, the centre and the right are met with differentiated support among different groups of concerned individuals.

We expect that concerns about economic globalisation (trade and capital openness), migration and rapid technological-change/automation carry distinct risks that should yield preferences for distinct kinds of European social protection. A first expectation concerns the generosity of social protection. Worries about globalisation or technological change can be expected to carry risks that directly foster support for policies to mitigate or indemnify against such risks. But concerns about migration, while also fostering support for such risk-reduction, also awaken concern about the fiscal and economic burdens of new social protections; migrants are often depicted as extracting resources from the welfare state, and therefore are often seen – particularly by those concerned with migration – to disproportionately and unfairly benefit from social spending. Hence, those concerned about labourmarket competition stemming from migration – compared to those concerned about economic globalisation or tech change – may be generally less in favour of stronger unemployment insurance.

A second expectation concerns the extent of cross-border orientation of social protection. People worried about labour-market competition originating from ‘de-bordering’ – such as through economic globalisation or migration – may prefer policy alternatives that control or constrain cross-border commitments, including European-level social insurance. In contrast, concerns originating from threats with little to do with de-bordering, such as technological change, should not translate into concerns about policy options that constrain or control cross-border commitments.

And a third expectation concerns the key conditionality of social policy benefits relative to provisions that promote economic adjustment – what existing welfare-state scholarship refers to as ‘social investment’. We expect that labour market threats due to technological change, more than economic globalisation and migration, are likely to be strongly addressed by plans for skill upgrading and education. And we expect, therefore that such concerns with tech-change/automation should distinctly spur support for such social-investment provisions in European or other social benefits.

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About the Authors

Brian Burgoon is Professor of International and Comparative Political Economy in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam (UvA).

Gregorio Buzzelli is a research at Bruegel and a PhD candidate in Political Studies at the University of Milan.

Francesco Nicoli is assistant professor of political science at the Politecnico Institute of Turin.

Stefano Sacchi is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Milan.