Automation and Public Support for Workfare

Zhen Jie Im*, Kathrin Komp-Leukkunen*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Automation has permeated workplaces and threatens labour in the production process. Concurrently, European governments have expanded workfare which imposes stringent conditions and sanctions on unemployed workers after the onset of austerity. We explore how automation risk affects workfare support. Recent research finds that most routine workers ‘survive’ in their routine jobs. Despite avoiding unemployment, routine workers may face the threat of status decline as automation erodes the value of routine work. They may respond by differentiating themselves from lower-ranked social groups such as unemployed workers. Such boundary drawing may manifest views that the unemployed are less deserving of welfare. We thus posit that routine workers may support workfare to assuage their fears of status decline. We further explore if worsening economic hardship, proxied as rising unemployment rates over time, increases their support for workfare. We conducted pooled and multilevel analyses using data from the European Social Survey. We find that routine workers significantly support workfare. We also find that routine workers support workfare when economic hardship worsens, but oppose it when conditions ameliorate. Findings suggest that status threat is an important channel by which automation risk may affect workfare support, but its impact depends on social context, hence yielding country-differences. Worsening economic hardship may exacerbate routine workers’ status decline fears, and intensify their harsh views against unemployed workers. Automation risk may thus have a greater impact on workfare support under such conditions. Policymakers can use these findings to assess how workfare may be publicly received and under various economic conditions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of European Social Policy
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)457-472
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Activation
  • Automation
  • Labour market change
  • Public opinion
  • Welfare stateworkfare

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