Precarious Employment Biographies

(October 2012)

Designed as a qualitative panel study, the "Precarious Employment Biographies" project was carried out at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research from 2007 to 2012. It was part of a joint project, "Unemployment and Participation", which was conceived, funded and coordinated by the Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (IAB) of the Bundesagentur für Arbeit [Institute for Employment Research of the Federal Employment Agency] in Nuremberg. The Institut für Sozialwissenschaftliche Forschung München [Institute for Social Science Research Munich] was also a project partner, focusing on the evaluation of the "Development of Work Capacity and Employability".

At the center of the five-year research project were biographical narrative interviews, repeated each year, with 152 people in precarious, insecure, and transitory employment situations. In four interview waves, the joint project conducted altogether some 450 biographical narrative interviews with unemployed and employed people who at one time or another received welfare payments from the state. The survey took place in seven regions of Germany with different structural characteristics and labor market conditions.

The findings of the project show that the boundaries between secure and insecure zones in the world of employment are becoming increasingly blurred. The question of how paid employment plays a role in integrating individuals in society must therefore be reexamined and can no longer be answered exclusively by differentiating between those who are employed and those who are not. Categories of exclusion versus belonging that have been applied in the sociology of work no longer seem to do justice to the empirical realities of the world of labor. Instead, the evaluation of our research findings indicates that a gray zone has emerged on the labor market in which biographically vulnerable and tenuous forms of employment predominate. These forms of employment offer access to working life but only periodically, at irregular intervals, and with no long-term commitment of employers. More than half of the 152 people interviewed shuttle back and forth between mini-jobs, temp work, internships, short-term contracts, and welfare or other public benefits. Continually crossing a border between being employed or unemployed, they actually represent a "frantic standstill" in the world of work. Their work lives are characterized by mobility, variance, and flexibility rather than stabilization. These changes present a challenge to sociologists beyond issues related to the world of employment. New inequalities become apparent. A new zone of instability is now becoming entrenched, shaping biographies and changing people’s perspectives on society.

Many interviewees have developed an attitude that we could describe as "intermediate zone awareness". This is characterized by interpretations of their life situation in which their loss of control or autonomy in planning and shaping their own lives plays a key role. For many of those interviewed, uncertainty becomes the rule. To achieve goals, give meaning to their situation, and be active, their perspective now often focuses on the intermediate zone where they can hardly make plans for the future. Concentration on the present is so intense that prospects for the future are beyond imagination.

As the panel study shows, the state’s activation policy does not result in a sustainable exit from this intermediate zone in the world of work. Rather, we observe a perpetuation of precariousness—interviewees are held in "motion" and permanent strain, or uphold this position on their own, driven by the concern about and efforts to avoid being permanently relegated to the bottom of the intermediate zone.