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The Netherlands

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Franz Rothenbacher

The Netherlands is one of the most highy developed countries of Europe and the world. At the same time it is one of the smallest countries of Europe if the territory of the country is considered: it only covers 41,029 km2) and therefore ranks 13th among the 15 countries of the EU. The population density is the highest one of all European countries and one of the highest in the world. Concerning population size it ranks 6th in EU15. The proportion of the Dutch population is 4.1 per cent, that of the territory is 1.3 per cent of that of the EU15.

"Stateness" is rather low, as a distinct centre of the country does not exist. The decentralisation of the population, the cities, universities, etc. is high given the rather short distances.

In terms of economy, The Netherlands is, as it was earlier in history, a trading nation, occupying the most important seaports of the continent, and therefore is the real "gateway" for overseas trade to continental Europe.

Geography and History

The Netherlands is located at the North-Western edge of the continent. The country was settled by Germanic tribes and only partially influenced by the Roman empire. In the Middle ages the Netherlands were part of Burgundy; later it came under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs. The major characteristics of the country started to develop in the 16th century: the influence of calvinism, the erection of a colonial empire, and the fight for independence. These constellations still exert their influence on the country, as - inter alia - the socio-cultural segmentation, the effects of decolonization (immigration from overseas) show.

The Netherlands was one of the first countries on the European continent to develop a republican system. The Eighty Years’ War of independence waged against the Spaniards ended with The Netherlands being recognized as a federation composed of the seven northern provinces. This federation was the reason for giving this system (as was the case with the Swiss cantons) the appellation "consociational democracies". In 1648 the independence of the northern provinces was recognized. The southern provinces remained with the Austrian Habsburgs (and became Belgium later on). Under Napoleon, the northern and southern provinces were reunited (Batavian Republic), but as early as 1830 the southern Catholic and (partly) French provinces left the new Kingdom. Since 1839 boundaries have been more or less stable.


Formally, The Netherlands is a hereditary parlamentary monarchy. For more than a century the country has been reigned by a queen. The political system is bicameral. In the field of politics the country has traditionally been divided into several socio-cultural milieus. Theoretical literature distinguishes between four different milieus: the Roman Catholic, the Protestant, the Socialist, and the Liberal milieu. Parties organized according to these milieus. The segmentation of the country into these milieus has been called pillarization ("verzuiling") (Arend Lijphart). Taken as an ideal concept, Lijphart stated that the whole society would divide itself into these separate segments. Thus, the main social organizations and groups, such as trade unions, churches, the educational system, social circles and marriage markets would organize along these segmentation lines.

This diagnosis is true until the 1960s, but, as many studies now show, pillarization is vanishing in several fields. The Netherlands participates in the general trend towards secularization (the proportion of those not affiliated with a church is now higher than that of any other religious group). The welfare state and the internationalization of the economy have equalising effects on socio-cultural segments.


During its modern history The Netherlands has predominantly been a nation of merchants, while agriculture and fisheries as well as the crafts came only second. Thus industrialization came about rather late, after the decline of the colonial empire, and not before the end of the 19th century. Since World War II The Netherlands has managed to change its economy and move towards prosperity by means of economic integration, first by creating the Benelux Union, and second by being a founding member of the European Community. The Netherlands has benefitted strongly from the economic integration of Europe, as most of the commodities coming from overseas are channelled through Dutch ports. The Netherlands therefore functions as a gateway to the continent for a large amount of extra- and intra-EU trade. The economy did not experience such disturbances as did the French or Belgian, because The Netherlands did not have coal mining and metal-processing industries to any considerable degree. Instead, they took the lead in the field of industries concerned with crude oil and related products.

Altogether, the development towards a post-industrial society has strongly advanced, and services now dominate the economy, while agricultural employment is very low. But agriculture is nevertheless important in the Dutch economy, and the low employment rate is due to high mechanization. Industrial employment has been declining since several decades, but this is also a result of highly mechanized industries. Public employment is one large part of the service sector, but – although it has grown considerably – it is not as large as in comparable countries.

Table: Statistical comparisons

Demography and Family

Given the fact that the population density was very high as early as the 19th century, the continuously (in relation to the European average) high fertility rate is astonishing. The population growth in the last 150 years was very strong, but this cannot only be attributed to high fertility; to a much higher degree it is caused by a rather low infant mortality rate. Thus, the population in 1850 was only about 3 mio. and increased five times in 150 years.

The traditional "bourgeois" family model still plays an important role. Altogether, The Netherlands does not deviate strongly from the European average as regards core demographic indicators. Marriages, e.g., have been frequent until the present, after 1945 even a massive marriage boom set in. And there is no such massive decline in marriage frequency as in the Nordic countries. Until recently, the age at marriage was not much higher than in Western Europe; only the age at first birth has been higher since the 1970s. The age of mothers at all births exceeded the European average in the last 30 years, thus indicating a much longer period of procreation in a woman’s life than in other countries. This explains the rather high fertility rate. Divorces are only slightly more frequent than on the European average.

The only important exception is the traditionally very low rate of births out-of-wedlock which increased in the last two decades, but there is no convergence to the European average. Thus it can be said that the family in the traditional sense still has a strong standing, and values are still strongly in favour of the traditional model. The rather strong female labour force participation does not alter the picture, because nearly two thirds of all women employed have part-time jobs. The part-time employment rate in The Netherlands is the highest one in Europe, as is the rate of male part-time employment.

Welfare Stateness and SocialReporting

The growth of the welfare state in The Netherlands has been the strongest of all western European countries since the 1950s. Social protection expenditure is higher than the EU-average and is as high as in the Nordic countries with over 30 per cent of GDP. Special weight in Dutch social security was given to income maintenance, while expenditures for social services are lower by comparison. The generous disability legislation is anomalous in a European context and has lead to a very strong growth in disability benefits. While, on the European average, in 1994 (EU12) 9 per cent of total social protection expenditure went into the "invalidity/disability function", this proportion was 22.3 per cent in The Netherlands, twice the amount comparable countries spent. This anomaly is the consequence of the explosion of disability claims due to very high and generous benefits and the use of this regulation for early retirement by the employers. Reducing these expenditures is a major policy objective. This has become all the more important as high expenditures for disability reduce those for other purposes, as, e.g., for the family, where expenditures are rather low.

Welfare state reforms and the expansion of the welfare state were accompanied by the institutionalization of social reporting and the heavy weight given to social statistics. Monitoring the outcomes of welfare policies has become a major objective of such public agencies as the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the planning bureaus. The Netherlands have emphasized taking social surveys and made permanent the "Survey on the Living Situation" (Leefsituatie Survey), which is the basis for the biennial reports. Many other specialized social surveys and social reports have been produced and published.

Regional Diversity

Regional diversity is rather low due to high urbanization and strong decentralization. The territory system is polycephalic and belongs to the old city belt (Stein Rokkan). But regional differences do exist. The economic centre is West-Nederland, where not only nearly half of the Dutch population is concentrated, but where the GDP per capita is the highest. The strongest economic development of all Dutch provinces is indicated by the very high population density, the out-migration from this densely populated region, the lowest share of agricultural employment, the highest overall economic activity rate, the highest rate of female employment and the strongest post-modern developments. An example of these latter developments is, e.g., the fact that West-Nederland has the highest out-of-wedlock birth rate of all Dutch provinces. Strongly differing from this economic centre of The Netherlands are the provinces of northern and – especially – eastern Netherlands: rurality and lower urbanization with agriculture and fisheries still shape these provinces.

Social Data Production

The Dutch system is unique in the sense that two institutions are the main producers of social data: the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP). The CBS is highly autonomous and strongly oriented to social statistics. It is innovative in that it comes up with new themes and statistical methods. The SCP conducts social surveys and is active in all kinds of social research domains. One of the most important products is the biannual "Social and Cultural Report" (see page 26 of this Newsletter). The third institution in the field of social data delivery is the Steinmetz-Archive, which stores social survey data sets for secondary analyses (for addresses see box above).

Further Reading

Andeweg, Rudy B. and Galen A. Irwin 1993: Dutch Government and Politics. Houndsmill, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan.

Cox, Robert H. 1993: The Development of the Dutch Welfare State: From Workers’ Insurance to Universal Entitlement. Pittsburg and London: University of Pittsburg Press.

King, Peter and Michael Wintle 1988: The Netherlands. Oxford: Clio Press (=World Bibliographical Series, vol. 88).

Lijphart, A. 1968: The Politics of Accomodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Netherlands Economic Institute 1996: Labour Market Studies: Netherlands. Series No. 1. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

Van den Brekel, Hans and Fred Deven, eds. 1996: Population and Family in the Low Countries 1995: Selected Current Issues. Dordrecht: Kluwer (European Studies in Population, vol. 4)

National Statistical Institute: Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS), Voorburg: Postbus 4000, 2270 JM VOORBURG, ( (070) 337 38 00, Fax: (070) 387 74 29, E-mail: – Heerlen: Postbus 4481, 6401 CZ HEERLEN, ( (045) 570 60 00, Fax: (045) 572 74 40, E-mail:, Internet: Publications are directly available from the CBS in Heerlen. CBS publishes an annual "CBS-catalogus" and specialized catalogues on electronic products.

Social Science Research Institutions: Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI), P.O. Box 11650, NL-2502 AR The Hague, The Netherlands. (Phone: 070 – 3565200, Fax: 070 – 3647187, Internet:, E-mail:
Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (SCP), P.O. Box 37, NL-2280 AA Rijswijk, (Phone: XX 31 70 3198700, Fax: XX 31 70 3963000.
Netherlands Institute for Scientific Information Services (NIWI), Joan Muyskenweg 25, P.O. Box 95180, NL-1090 HD Amsterdam, The Netherlands. (Phone: +31 20 462 8628, Fax.: +31 20 663 9257, Internet:, E-mail:
Sociaal-Wetenschappelijk Informatie- en Documentatiecentrum (SWIDOC), Herengracht 410-412, NL-1017 BX Amsterdam, The Netherlands. (Phone: 020-6225061, Fax: 020-6238374, Internet:, E-mail:
Steinmetz Archive, see NIWI above.
Royal Netherlands Academy for Arts and Sciences (KNAW), E-mail: Internet:
SISWO/Instituut voor Maatschappijwetenschappen, Plantage Muidergracht 4, NL-1008 TV Amsterdam, The Netherlands, (Phone: +31-20-5270600, Fax: +031-20-6229430, E-mail:, Internet:
Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS), Meijboomlaan 1, NL-2242 PR Wassenaar, The Netherlands. (Phone: +31-70-5122700, Fax: +31-70-5117162, E-mail:, Internet:

Social Science and Political Journals: The Netherlands’ Journal of Social Sciences (semi-annual, 25.1989-, ISSN 0038-0172); forerunners: The Netherlands Journal of Sociology (12.1976-24.1988) and Sociologia Neerlandica (1.1962/63-11.1975); Mens en Maatschappij (bimonthly, 1.1925ff, ISSN 0025-9454); Politica. Sociale Wetenschapen en Beleid (-36.1986); Acta Politica (1.1965/66-, ISSN 0001-6810); Bevolking en Gezin (1.1963-, ISSN 0772-764X/0523-1159); The Low Countries History Yearbook (11.1978(1979)-15.1982 finished, ISSN 0065-129x); forerunners: Acta Historiae Neerlandicae (6.1973 - 10.1978) and Acta Historiae Neerlandica (1.1966 - 5.1971).