Purpose – Focussing on the historical experience, the purpose of this paper is to argue the need for change in the design and implementation of social policies in order to overcome the stalemate of the last two or three decades. Design/methodology/approach – Starting with the social measures taken by Bismarck in the late nineteenth century, the paper shows that modern social policy has ever since been diversely developed in the world, and compares the experiences of the USA and Europe. Under this framework, the paper raises less handled social issues that are decisive for a true reform, and that must be taken into account either theoretically or for practical purposes. Findings – In a competitive environment and in a rapidly changing world economy, it is demonstrated that the paper's topic has a strong theoretical and empirical basis. Owing to its great complexity, however, the search for sound economic foundations of social policies must be continued. Practical implications – In dealing with the dilemmas faced by social policies more emphasis should be put on the development of new insights, particularly on a global scale and in a more friendly approach to technological modernisation. Originality/value – The paper explores the deepening of the policy mix between public measures and civil society initiatives as a possible solution to the present difficulties. Furthermore, it stresses the relevance of marginalised issues like the full integration of technological modernisation, and of an international dimension into the social policies, so far basically domestic.
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