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Looking to the Past for the Sustainable Social Work of the Future

Mirja Satka

I have read the thoughtful contributions of the previous chapters with great enthusiasm. They provide deep insights into the present state of European social work and social services in various parts of the continent. After reading these perspectives, it is hard to deny that the welfare systems of the advanced Western societies have become too narrow and at the same too complex to respond to the constantly changing needs of people. For example, social workers continue to see emerging needs for more comprehensive forms of social support, especially among people who have lost a sense of coherence in their lives (see Virokannas in this volume) or among those who do not have the skills or support to make the best choices for their personal future (see Moilanen, Kiili and Alanen in this volume). In other words, the continuing shift to a globalizing economy and the restructuring of people's everyday lives have revealed major cultural gaps and structural problems in the maturing industrial phase societies. As a result, social work is challenged today maybe more than ever before. If we extend these critiques to the whole of our societies, the conclusion is clear: social workers and their managers are certainly not the only agents to blame although they are the easy target of conservative politicians or the media. The present global and local policies are effectively eroding our potential to rebuild the lost social cohesion and realize emancipatory social practices and projects in general. The aim of this afterword is to discuss what could be done to create a better future in Europe for its citizens, and social intervention and the social professions in general.

The Present Dilemma

In the rapidly changing local and global contexts of today, updating the old welfare idea and welfare system is obviously no longer enough. A more thorough reconstruction of the basics seems necessary (see Tapola-Haapala; Houston; Julkunen and Karvinen-Niinikoski in this volume). At this point the reader might wonder if we are going to see the end of social work as we know it; my honest answer is that we are not even coming close. Historians are familiar with a related phenomenon, in which contemporary observers often tend to exaggerate the depth and breadth of current changes simply because they only have a vague idea of
where they themselves are situated on the continuum of historical transformation. I believe that the present state is more likely to turn out to be a new beginning, particularly if we are able to develop an exciting vision for the future aims and work profiles of social work – and if we decide to fight for that vision. In this effort we should draw on the rich past of social interventions worldwide (see McGregor and Hoikkala; Lorenz in this volume).

Having said this, I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to forecast the future, particularly under the conditions of the current global and local socioeconomic transformations. Experts in various fields have arrived at a consensus that the present model of industrialized societies is increasingly unsustainable economically, socially and ecologically. In addition, in recent decades plenty of evidence has emerged that the present welfare models have not functioned well for the individual well-being of citizens, a state that is discussed in depth throughout this volume. Moreover, the growing uncertainty, increasing knowledge intensity and specialization, and the complexity of advanced societies as well as of the social and economic activities of individuals have increased the pervasiveness of market failure, while governments themselves have failed to cover the resulting risks and gaps and to compensate their citizens for the unexpected social consequences. It follows that the historic transformation we are heading for in the coming decades is likely to be more extensive than ever before in the history of social work as part of the modern nation-state. I predict that these changes are going to fundamentally challenge the familiar forms of social intervention. However, one thing is clear: as a stakeholder in the forthcoming structural adaptation process, individual social workers, and the entire global profession of social work, will be forced to become a participant in the transformation process.

To begin thinking about our contribution to this process, we could start from the point we are currently standing on: our basic understanding of human needs and well-being. As some philosophers are teaching us to do (e.g. Von Wright 1981; Ikäheimo 2008), it is timely to ask what we consider to be a good life and well-being in the present conditions. This kind of moral goal has always been the key signpost in welfare-related social activities such as social work or social policy. In addition, the idea of a good, viable life belongs to the heart of all organized conditions of human life. In his future analysis of Finnish society, Timo Hämäläinen (2013, 13) concludes that 'a deeper and broader understanding of well-being in everyday life can support all dimensions of sustainability. It is the hard core around which sustainable societies can be built'. Social work in the future should do more than solve social problems. Any future approach has to adopt the responsibility to promote and advance humane values and sociability among different local groups of people. It is this responsibility that has become precarious and which is presently lacking a strong stakeholder in European societies.

The practical problems of the established European welfare paradigms and organizations stem from a variety of sources, including ageing populations, the changing skill requirements of new technologies, changing values, an outdated and narrow theoretical frame for welfare and social action, bureaucratic public
institutions and more. These issues, along with environmental problems and other challenges, have reinforced broad interest in more sustainable development 'that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' (UN 1987). For the experts of social work, too, this message has resonated as a possibility (e.g. Dominelli 2012) for a while now, but it has not inspired a critical mass of the profession to move forward.

To be successful as a transformation agent under the present conditions, social work and its members must embrace, as part of its humanistic mission, a holistic and systemic understanding of society (see Lorenz; Marthinsen; Julkunen and Karvinen-Niinikoski in this volume). It is not enough to limit social work education and academic debates to the empirical facts of practice or to the issues of management and governance. Both education and academia must integrate the viewpoint of the preferable socioeconomic model and the skills that enable the voice of social expertise to be used in public (Tapola-Haapala, in this volume). In addition, as academics we need a supportive and all-inclusive intellectual approach for effectively participating in the promotion of a solidary, human-centric societal transformation toward well-being that is sustainable on an individual and collective level (see Houston; Virokannas in this volume).

By sketching this wide-ranging perspective of the future, I might unconsciously make the same mistake of overestimation that contemporary observers frequently do when they evaluate the events and processes of their own time. However, I am not alone as a supporter of such a comprehensive vision and the need for a rethought social paradigm and the next-generation model of a European welfare state (see Kulkki 2012b; Hämäläinen and Michaelson 2014). The time is now to develop a conscious effort to move toward a less complex, more holistic and coherent model of social support and intervention. In the next section I collect previous arguments and raise further ones to support the clear near-future shifts and to argue for possible directions for well-planned social work action strategies as well as professional expertise based in practice as well as research.

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