Employment in precarious conditions in Germany as in many other countries is above all young, feminine and migratory. More than half of German under-24-year-olds have only a short-term work contract; of the under-35-year-olds this is still 30 percent; half of all temporary workers are under age 35; 23 percent are employees in the low-wage sector; 26% of 18-24-year-olds live under the poverty line. As if that were not enough, one-fourth of those in educational transitional programs, 10% are neither in work nor in training, (so-called NEETs,) and 6% of young people leave school without any qualification. However, interestingly, the young precarious workers do not really mobilize against precarity, at least not massively. Even under conditions of sectoral relaxed labour markets, young precarious workers tend not to engage in conflict with their employers or participate in protest but rather remain passive, sympathetic supporters of trade unions and wait until their earning situation is no longer precarious before they mobilize (Thiel and Eversberg 2017).
In the following I will try to explain this puzzle by looking at subjective factors that lead to or hamper mobilization. The focus on subjective factors does not dismiss the role of context and norms (Menz and Nies 2016), it is just a dimension that has been neglected so far. I will use Hirschman’s (1970) scheme of exit, voice and loyalty as potential reactions towards precarity and explain in turn what leads to individual strategies of loyalty, voice or rather exit. We can distinguish push and pull factors on the individual biographical level for each phenomenon. The analysis draws on results of the PREWORK project where we conducted 60 biographic interviews with precariously living young adults under age 35.
Voice, Exit and Loyalty as strategies towards precarity
Voice is understood here as the mobilization of workers. Other than classic literature on mobilization I will not look at organisational factors (Kelly 1998) but at individual biographical motifs. First, and very uniquely, mobilization in our sample occurred only among those who have high cultural capital (higher academic degrees), and second who ascribe to their occupation a high priority. They had a strong occupational identity with intrinsic work motivation, such as in knowledge workers, researchers, artists or medical doctors. If the occupation has no high priority in life, there is no mobilization.
Furthermore, third, a precondition for activation seemed to be a consciousness of injustice, or the experience of injustice in the course of one’s biography, and particularly social injustice. The critique of concrete working conditions in a profession then led to engagement in the field of work and especially mobilization. Fourth, we found that a highly developed feeling of self-efficacy is vital for mobilization. By self-efficacy we follow Bandura’s (1997) understanding as being the conviction that one can achieve through one’s own behaviour certain results, while the dimension “environmental control” distinguishes whether events are influenced through individual actions (agency [i.e. indirectly]) or rather through external circumstances such as luck, destiny, or other powerful persons and the like. He distinguishes four types of self-efficacy— based on the self-perceived level of self-efficacy and possibility for controlling the environment — that lead either to social engagement and protest, to apathy and resignation, or to an over-conformity to the environment.
Fifth, in all mobilized respondents there occurred a conflictive separation from parents. It appeared almost as if the widespread modern approach to upbringing leads to an a-politization, and that the rejection of parents’ lifestyles promotes political engagement.
Pull-factors played also a huge role, it were a strong recruitational field of societally critical student groups, subcultures, personal role models and a range of available ideologies and appealing narratives that sound demanding but not impossible.
If we look at Noah as an example. He is 28, broke off his studies and took up a carpenter’s apprenticeship. His trade he considers almost an artistic activity, and it provides him with a strong occupational identity. For Noah, it is less the concrete working conditions in a firm that are important, and more the general working conditions in the capitalist system, that he rejects. Therefore, he joined a cooperative in which the incomes of the members are pooled and divided among all, so that all members are less dependent on individual orders and less on the ability and necessity to work constantly. For Noah the process of separation from his parents had a strong influence on his engagement in the politics of work. As his parents separated in a painful custody battle, Noah fled into in the punk scene and lived on the street. At age 18, he travelled for almost two years by bicycle through Europe and during this time] read leftist literature. His experience of the failure of the small-family model drove him to seek togetherness in alternative, collective structures. He lives in leftist-oriented communal housing project and engages himself in an anarchist union movement. His activity in the politics of work is for him a strong expression of his estrangement from the failed life-model of his parents.
The contrary case – no critique of conditions, but rather adaptation to them — presumes, one could say, is the absence of all these factors, though we can in fact elaborate a few own factors that foster loyalty. Above all this is an effect of the normalization of precarity: it is no longer perceived as something bad. Rather, it is considered something temporary; a difficult situation that can, when the youth phase has passed, or with a substantial educational investment, resolve itself. Here a strong belief in meritocracy is of consequence. If I invest enough, the system will reward me. Here is also the reason why, with equally high self-efficacy as in the “voice” type, no collective action ensues, but instead the logic of individual maximation prevails, with precarity remedied individually. At the same time, here the individual resources of actors are already significantly taken up by the management of the challenging, stressful youth phase. Too many things are waiting at the same time, above all the social pressure to “find yourself”. That is accompanied by the so-called neoliberal, unauthentic Self which, in the words of the economist Wrenn (2015), totally inflates the perception of one’s own ability to act, and in particular the control over the environment and tries to make the individual believe that all changes to the environment should be possible on the basis of individual agency and individual responsibility for everything. The unauthentic Self cannot recognize structures anymore. Adaptation or perhaps rather blockade; to undertake something in some direction; these motivations originate in great measure from precariousness. As Butler (2009) does, one can speak here of the physical and emotional vulnerability of all life, against which individuals try to immunize themselves. Many of our blocked subjects still suffer today from effects of childbirth, childhood neglect, the experience of violence, or chronic health problems. The experience of chronic illness or social mobbing may lead to loneliness and isolation. It is possible however that individuals in this type of situation may over the course of their biography decide on voice mechanisms if their precarity persists even beyond youth.
Anna is an interesting case in Loyalty. Anna is 30, has two Master’s degrees, several internships behind her, international work and academic experience and up to now has had still no work contract lasting more than 6 months. As an adopted child in an upper middle-class family, she enjoyed generous support during her education and is financially secured against sudden need by her parents as well as by her long-standing boyfriend and now husband. Despite this, the long job-application phase after her studies she has spent in a state of depression. Anna is still searching for a suitable occupational profile for herself. Although she suffers from insecurity and her current work situation in a public administrative position and complains of the short-term contracts, she holds fast to the idea that through sufficient effort she will at some future time find a secure position.
The third variant, exit, means here above all the retreat into the private, or, if within employment, a switch of sector, a change from formal work to informal or even illegal work or resignation from employment. The escape motif ranges from taking a sabbatical, regular pauses, leaving on a trip or bike by bus, or all the way to founding a permanent commune in Spain.
Among biographical factors in taking the exit option we identify the lack of recognition. But also, young adults who are trying to find their initial place in the occupational world and fail, may then rather give up especially if the work is disagreeable and makes them sick, and then also choose the exit option. And when an alternative income is available, one can also rather afford to choose exit. The welfare state makes possible for some young women an early motherhood that, also after a separation from the partner, is financially secured if only on a low level, and thereby the mother role may replace the employment or occupational orientation.
Cynthia is a good example for a highly qualified person who due to lack of recognition chooses exit. She is 35 at the time of the interview and like Anna she has both a German and international Master’s degree and had already collected a multitude of positions in her work history, in precarious jobs in different areas (at university, gastronomy, logistics). The option of doctoral studies, research and teaching she rejects because in her experience, university working conditions are unhealthy (overwork, stress, lack of security and recognition). As co-researcher in a research project in which she was employed for two years on renewable research-assistant contracts, she received — despite her responsible job — no sufficient pay, job security, social security or the possibility of co-determination in the organizational unit.
Though Cynthia saw in this work at least in part an opportunity for her own self-realization, this ultimately did not turn out so for her, so that she gradually withdrew from the labour market and [finally] emigrated to Spain to live in a commune.
Any scope for change?
We have shown here to what extent, irrespective of labour market, sector, or welfare state institutions, the mobilization of workers depends on biographical resources. If biographical factors play a huge role, then it is legitimate to ask if and how can biographical conditions be changed to make young workers more critical towards precarity? The answer is mainly through changes in the conditions of social context. The management of the effects of a traumatic childhood is best left to therapists, but the framework conditions for the politicization of work can however be adjusted by diverse societal actors, certainly unions, but also media, politics, NGOs and researchers.
In Germany, the protest of the precarious youth in comparison to other countries developed late. Possibly the protest will continue. Strikes by deliveroo drivers (i.e. riders, couriers), and collective wage increases for student part-timers could be an indication. It should however succeed to create communication spaces in which collective identities are formed that can exercise social criticism. In consideration of the scarce effect that can be had on biographical push-factors in the short term, only pull-factors remain as an arena for action, above all the attraction of ideology; here it should succeed to underscore the fact that social inequality is not an economic necessity or the result of different individual investments, but rather the result of political struggles in the arena of work. (Bourdieu 1998)
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