Young workers are among the most vulnerable group in many European countries. This situationhas worsened following the economic crisis in 2009,since when the youth unemployment rate rose dramatically, up to 49% in certain countries. While Poland and Germany have been two countries that survived the crisis rather well, the situation for young workers is rather gloomy. In Poland youth unemployment lies at 24%, while existing employment is in most cases non-standard. In Germany, with a rather low youth unemployment rate of 6%, the dual system nevertheless has lost its inclusive power, given that for each apprenticeship there are five applicants (Lehmkuhl 2013) and 44% of the school leavers find themselves in the secondary labour market (pre-vocational programmes) (BMBF 2013). Those in employment often suffer from atypical forms of employment like fixed-term contracts, agency work, low-level part-time employment, or unpaid trainee positions. During their first 10 to 15 years of employment, atypical employment alternates with unemployment, and this irrespective of the skills level (Albert et al. 2010: 41). Thus, it seems that young workers are particularly hit by the flexibilisation of labour and the increase in precarious employment.
This research project seeks to propose new theoretical insights into the extent in which precarious working and living conditions influence the emergent forms of social, class and political consciousness, individual life strategies and collective civic engagement of young workers in Poland and Germany. Taking as a case example the situation of young precarious workers, the research seeks to advance the relational, historical and interpretive approach to precarity in which the social boundaries of the concept are determined by institutional features of national varieties of capitalism, cultural and political discourses of “normal employment” as well as the practices of social actors. Simultaneously, the project attempts to grasp the commonalities of experiences of young people affected by precarious employment in the context of common ideological features of late capitalist, post-Fordist societies and post-socialist transformations. In this context, we attempt to grasp the process of formation of dispositions to deal with of instable employment in both countries, the fragmentation of class experiences of the youth, their visions of well-functioning economic order as well as individual and collective attempts to cope and possibly change their situation. At the methodological level, we adapt the national research traditions to international comparative research on precarious workers. This includes the “well organised economy index” (Juliusz Gardawski), German approaches to studying precarity (e.g. Klaus Dörre) and interpretative research methods developed by Fritz Schuetze (biographical method). The development of a joint methodological tools to understand the situation and strategies of precarious workers can be considered another added value of this study. The empirical basis for the research includes two CAWI nationwide surveys of 500 young precarious workers in Poland and Germany, 120 biographical narrative interviews with precarious employees in both countries and secondary data.
Precarity is thus a relational category dependent on the definition of social normality (Dörre 2010). It is not the same as social exclusion, but a floating situation where access to normality still seems possible.Besides the objective employment conditions, a subjective dimension has to be taken into account (ibid.).We thus understand by precarity the loss of a living-wage, of integration in social networks, and of full social rights, all of which is considered standard in the societies under study, as well as thesubjective feeling of precarityconstituted bya loss of recognition and social integration (Dörre 2007; Dörre et al.2004). In Germany and Poland, despite this rather significant increase in the precarious employment of young people, and the gloomyperspectives, there is little protest coming from the youth, in contrast to other European countries (c.f. Grekopoulou 2011 for Greece). Rather we observe that a large part of Polish youth emigrate and thus take an exit option (Meardi 2007), while the German youth stays rather immobile. The civic and political silence and inactivity does not imply that young Poles and Germans are content with precariousness, just the opposite is true: in Germany e.g. 90% of those under 35 perceive insecure employment as a psychological burden, and 87% think that it complicates life planning and family planning (IG Metall 2012: 12). In Poland, the majority of temporary employees (64%) explained that they took temporary jobs because of lack of other options (Eurostat LFS). The absence of protest in the face of increased and detested precarity creates a research puzzle and theoretical challenge which is central to our study.
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