Precarious working has been the subject of much recent interest and debate. Research has focused on the often negative consequences of precarity for those that experience it. Our new study of work experiences, living conditions, political attitudes and participation among young precarious workers in Poland and Germany has revealed a relatively high level of life satisfaction, and an attempt to cope with precarity in every best way possible.
Nevertheless, precarity becomes a biographical problem and our latest publication in Work Employment and Society shows under what conditions precarity becomes a biographical problem, creating potential for its individual or collective contestation and, in what circumstances objective precarity becomes subjectively accepted and “normalised” as an obvious and unavoidable element of modern professional biography.
Based on qualitative analysis of 123 life stories of young Poles and Germans, we have distinguished six types of life strategies engaged in by precarious workers. These types differ in expectations towards paid work, meanings subjectively awarded to the objective experience of precarious work, as well as roles played in these processes by economic, social, cultural and emotional resources.
The Labourers’ type combines relatively limited or devalued educational resources with the desire for stable work which will be well paid and, as put by one of our narrators, “from Monday to Friday, one shift”. This type sees work as a central element of their biography. It is the source of social integration, gives sense to life and constitutes a basis for obtaining economic resources necessary for the completion of non-professional goals.
Hence, precarisation here means not only economic uncertainty but also the erosion of stable reference points in a community. Due to labour migration, seen as a necessity, increasing competition in the labour market and in the workplace, as well as clear status differences, the subjective feeling of symbolic exclusion becomes for them more acute. In response, this strategy assumes self-limitation of needs and life aspirations, as well as seeking support from family which replaces the ineffective state and fragmented community.
The Professional type describes – in the area of work – a strategy combining relatively high cultural capital resources with the search for employment stability, good income and possibility for professional development. Work has an autotelic value as a source not only of income but also of social status confirmed by college diplomas. In this type, strict and clear borders exist between professional life and life outside work and the expected model of normal biography is white collar work (for example, in an office, in public services or a large corporation). Professional aspirations, however, clash with the reality of employment defined by uncertainty and instability, undermining the possibility for biographical planning and completion of institutionalised models of activity in the sphere of work. This situation is often connected with the experience of numerous unpaid or low-paid traineeships or apprenticeships. In this type, the precarisation of work is either temporarily legitimised as an unpleasant but necessary stage on the path towards stable employment, or rejected and criticised, especially among people over 30 years of age, frustrated with the continuing wait for stabilisation.
The Creative type is characterised by the rejection of the Fordist model of employment seen as too rigid, bureaucratic and limiting individual fulfilment and autonomy. Desired work should offer sense, evoke new inspirations and make it possible to flexibly form relations between professional and non-professional life. Creativity is associated with a high autotelic value of work which is central to life strategies. Often work in the NGO sector is chosen, within cultural and artistic projects which at least in theory offer liberation from limitations and routine. In practice, this strategy often is connected with significant bio- graphical costs (that is, high uncertainty of employment, low income and a blurring of the line between work and non-work). However, flexibility is seen as a standard and its negative consequences as the necessary costs of doing what you love. Due to sensitivity to social injustice and biographical costs of short-term project work within this type, we can find the symptoms of the most articulated criticism of work precarisation as well as direct identification with the precariat as a group.
The Bricolage or ‘entrepreneurial’ type is characterised by a high level of acceptance for flexibility and instrumental attitude towards work which is seen in the first place as the source of in- come. In the work sphere it is based on the search for new possibilities and experimenting with different forms of employment making it possible to maximise economic benefits. Professional experiences include different, often not related jobs or attempts at starting their own businesses, usually without sufficient economic resources.
Life strategies within the entrepreneurial type combine a strong faith in individual agency with attempts at achieving optimal, from individual’s perspective, adaptation to the existing rules, rather than trying to change them. Despite the declared separation of private and professional life, in practice this line is blurred due to working after hours, making extra money in “free time” or, in the case of small businesses, always being on standby and on call. Despite the encountered difficulties, the opinion that effort and life resourcefulness are rewarded in the end prevails. In this case an important element of individual strategies – especially in Polish conditions – constitutes temporary labour migration.
The Blocked type is characterised by a combination of the feeling of helplessness and deep life disorganisation with limited resources of every kind. Some of our interviewees remained in the state of “suspension” between education and full employment which resulted from the feeling that in light of insecurity in the labour market it is better to withdraw from definite decisions related to professional future. In this type the difficulties in the labour market are often accompanied by serious family problems or psychological disorders. Here, professional problems may be solved only after dealing with personal ones. The interviewees in the blocked type were aware of the inconveniences related to precarious employment and criticised it openly, however they were unable to take effective actions in order to change their situation. Overcoming this impasse often required active institutional support (for example, from the labour market, social or health institutions, and support from significant others). Our research suggests that objective precarity in combination with precarious life situations outside work made it significantly more difficult to leave the impasse and undertake other, more proactive life strategies.
The Withdrawn type describes a life strategy in which paid work has lost – or has never achieved – a significant biographical value. As much as biographical planning occurs in this type, crucial life projects are located outside employment: in the family sphere, to which some of the interviewees withdrew into following early parenthood; in the communities, alternative to the world of regular paid work, including cooperatives and communes; or in the form of informal work, part- time, performed in addition to the main life passions. The withdrawal from the world of work, despite the biographical costs borne by the narrators, is not seen as a problem but as a way of liberation from duties and control.
The omnipresence of precarisation for younger people leads to some kind of arrangement with precarity. Young people try to arrange themselves with insecure labour market conditions and in many cases legitimise why this is acceptable for them for a short period of time. Those who fail to adapt to insecurity in consequence often suffer from mental health problems, but look for individual failure. A structural criticism of the type of labour market or economy that favours insecure employment contracts and risky livelihoods is consequently mainly absent. This new typology helps us better to understand why this is the case.
Acknowledgement: The research was funded by the National Science Centre (NCN) in Poland and the German Research Foundation (DFG), the NCN project number UMO-2014/15/G/HS4/04476, the DFG project number TR1378/1-1.
More results of the research can be found at PREWORK – “Young precarious workers in Poland and Germany: a comparative sociological study on working and living conditions, social consciousness and civic engagement”