For the welfare state the last thirty years have witnessed a turbulent transition from the "Golden Age" of expansion to a "Silver Age" of permanent austerity. This shift has been the result of external pressures (essentially: globalization and European integration) and of internal transformations of domestic economies and social structures. Permanent austerity has entailed incisive institutional adaptations and has been accompanied by a "new politics", centered on a plurality of "blame avoidance" strategies on the side of parties and governments. The article summarizes and discusses the main factual developments since the mid-1970s but it also surveys the main strands of academic debates on both the expansion and the crisis phases. The author argues that comparative welfare state research has been one of the liveliest fields of political economy - a field marked by important analytical and theoretical advances and by the accumulation of relevant and systematic empirical knowledge about a key institution of the European political landscape.