Since governments closed the gates of early retirement, another group of inactives has begun to rise

Since governments closed the gates of early retirement, another group of inactives has begun to rise
Since governments closed the gates of early retirement, another group of inactives has begun to rise

It’s not a coincidence. The day after Labor Day on May 1, with its traditional bouquet of social promises from the left-wing (and less left-wing) parties, the N-VA called together the press to propose a strong package of austerity measures. After the party comes the disillusionment, after the cricket’s song comes the reality check from the hardworking ants. That is the image that the party would like to portray in the market.

The Flemish nationalists hope to gain the sympathy of voters who appreciate an ‘honest’ and ‘courageous’ look at the future of the state economy. It is quite clear that getting the budget somewhat in order will be the major challenge and headache of the next federal government, in whatever color combination. That will also require savings. N-VA is looking for this, just like earlier and in less detail, Open Vld, especially in health care and social benefits, with a cut of no less than 11.8 billion in social security by 2029.

N-VA can certainly expect sympathy for that strategy from some analysts and opinion makers. They have long been and rightly concerned about the sustainability of the country’s finances in the medium term, when the current, rising deficits collide with large, necessary additional expenditures for an aging population, a warming climate and a changing world.

Shock Doctrine

Whether that sentiment is shared by the broader population is another question. Political history shows that voters do not immediately become enthusiastic about parties that sound the alarm about social policy.

The collective memory contains the hard campaign of the then VLD under Guy Verhofstadt in 1995. With apocalyptic posters about ’empty pension funds’, the liberals also reacted against the centre-left Dehaene-Tobback government. The VLD campaign set the tone, but the hoped-for breakthrough did not materialize in the voting booth, although the socialist SP was then confronted with the Agusta scandal. Many voters, according to the subsequent analysis, shied away from the shock doctrine that Verhofstadt was still promoting at the time.

Of course, the N-VA campaign cannot be completely compared to the failed approach of the liberals of yesteryear. With ‘Flemish prosperity’ the nationalists cover their content with a hopeful flag. To maintain that prosperity, they mainly target inactive people, proportionally more of whom live on the other side of the language border and who vote less for the N-VA anyway.

In essence, the tactics of N-VA (and Open Vld) are not that different from those of the radical parties VB and PVDA. They also place the burden on the shoulder of the ‘other’: for one it is the Waal and the migrant (VB), for the other the rich (PVDA), and for the N-VA the inactive.

This strategy is not without danger for N-VA. Voter research shows that the average Flemish is socio-economically to the left of the centre, with ample support for a generous social policy. The right-wing course of the N-VA is at odds with that broad grassroots current. A popular party that recruits from all levels of the population then runs a risk. Especially because there is a (more radical) right-wing alternative. Voters who have less education and who often feel insecure about their existence are already leaning towards the far right, partly because they feel misunderstood by the political system. N-VA could lose even more support in that group.

You could of course accuse the voter of a certain hypocrisy. Everyone realizes that savings or reforms are necessary until the proposals become concrete. Then there is backtracking and resistance. A phenomenon that transcends all social groups and classes – just look at how lobbying takes place for the slightest adjustment of the tax regime.

However, the situation is somewhat different when it comes to the resistance of many to austerity measures in social policy. It is not just self-interest that plays a role here. There is a gap between the theory and practice of the Belgian and Flemish labor market. That gap is getting bigger, not smaller.


Political theory can be summarized in three words: work, work, work. The full commitment to more work is a goal that is now embraced by almost every party, left and right, with an intended (but far from achieved) employment rate of 80 percent of the active population by 2030. That is understandable, because more Putting people to work is by far the most painless form of ‘saving’: the state has to pay fewer benefits and in return there is more (taxable) prosperity. More work is therefore the easy end point of almost every election program.

The practice looks a bit different. Since successive governments have closed the gates of early retirement, another group of inactive people has started to rise: the long-term ill. The number of people with illness or disability now exceeds 500,000, and that figure continues to climb. Benefits for long-term illness already amount to 11 billion in the books. Research by the RIZIV, cited in The time, shows that mental disorders (burnout and depression) in particular lead to significantly more dropouts: plus 43 percent (!) in five years.

This trend is somewhat too easily dismissed as a lifestyle disease of spoiled generations. Another recent analysis, by the National Bank, confirms that older workers and women in particular – who often have to combine work and family more intensively – drop out for long periods of time. Tighter access to unemployment and pensions has pushed up the number of long-term sick people, such as communicating vessels. This explains the paradox of our labor market: Belgium, and to a lesser extent Flanders, combines a moderate employment rate with low unemployment because hundreds of thousands of people are sick at home.

Health gap

In the current political debate, the trend is to place responsibility for the failure on the individual and to punish that individual. You hardly ever hear that there is a more collective problem. This has to do with the growing gap between those with less and longer education in society. The latter group dominates the debate and policy, the voice of the former is barely heard. Except… in the voting booth. And there are ‘enlightened’ minds who also want to curb that in all seriousness.

This social gap is increasingly also a health gap. People with a shorter education and lower income drop out more quickly due to illness, have fewer healthy years of life and die faster. That gap is staggeringly large and still growing: young men and women with a short education in this prosperous country can expect ten to thirteen years fewer healthy years of life than their more educated peers.

An immense difference that still remains out of the picture in discussions about work, long-term illness and pension. Some people, often in more demanding professions, are really exhausted physically and mentally. A fair labor policy takes this into account.

During the past period of government, the policy for long-term illness of Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit) was rather timid. People are guided more quickly and more, coaches are available, risk companies are activated. Critics think this is all too little and too weak. The question is whether N-VA’s tougher approach will bring more benefit.

The good news is that other countries, especially in the north, show that higher employment can indeed be combined with generous social protection. But that requires a reform of the entire socio-economic policy that goes slightly further than ‘take away their benefits’.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: governments closed gates early retirement group inactives begun rise


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