Reinventing work | Eurozine

‘Workshy’ is a label often applied to the young. Is it fair? Data suggest that something is amiss: across Europe, the average proportion of 15-29-year-olds not in work nor education or training exceeds the EU’s 9% target. Last year in France, the figure peaked at 12.5%. Yet a Europe-wide study has found that young people value work just as much as older generations. But their expectations have changed: work should be meaningful, workplaces democratized and the work-life balance improved.

This issue of Revue Projet, produced in collaboration with students from Sciences Po Grenoble, probes the stereotypes through interviews and analysis, building a more nuanced picture of the attitudes of young people in France – a far from homogeneous group. It reveals an array of aspirations and understandings of work, pointing to critical inequalities. Contributions from politicians and civil society propose transformative solutions.

Value systems

Pierre Bréchon analyses the 2017-2020 European Values Studies survey. In France a notable shift in attitude appears not between young people and previous generations but between people born pre-1960 and subsequent generations, with the older group valuing work more highly. From this perspective, a dwindling work ethic is not the preserve of the young. Bréchon also highlights an interesting cleavage according to social status: across all age groups, 56% of those with only secondary education ranked work as more important than leisure time, compared to 22% of those with a post-baccalaureate qualification. Narrowing in on 18-29-year-olds, a similar split appeared: educational trajectories influence attitudes to work.

Bréchon links this attribution of meaning to value systems, which differ in ‘the degree of individualization or individualism’. The former corresponds to ‘a desire for autonomy and free choice in all areas of life’, the latter to ‘defending one’s own interests and introversion’. Individualist young people, in his opinion, tend to put work first and care more about its material rewards, while those leaning towards ‘individualization’ tend to care more about the type of work they do and value democratic participation.

Emancipated wage slaves

Tom Martin and Clara Pineda, recent Sciences Po graduates with disparate career trajectories, write about their desire for fulfilling jobs that align with their personal values. They reject the existing world of work, which ‘reproduces various systems of oppression and feeds a deadly capitalist and neoliberal model’, envisaging a new framework that promotes environmental and social justice.

But they know their utopic visions are unfeasible without a profound rethinking of subsistence: dependence on a salary to meet economic needs turns employees into wage slaves, and only by redefining such key notions as freedom – understood as material prosperity – and seeking solutions in ‘collective organization, self-management and pooling of resources’ can emancipate be found.

Ecological job capital

Léa Malpart, who supports young job seekers, asks in her interview if these preoccupations are a luxury affordable only to an ‘enlightened elite’. In Seine-Saint-Denis, where the lack of resources are ‘scandalous’, pupils miss out on almost a year of teaching due to teacher shortages. Malpart’s young clients want meaningful jobs but have limited room for manoeuvre: ‘too often, work is about survival – being able to feed, house or clothe oneself’. 

Malpart sees the search for meaning at work as a sea change just as important as the digital turn. However, she observes that businesses tend to call on her centre when they struggle to recruit graduates, assuming the job seekers there will be less picky. While many of her clients devote time to social or environmental non-profits, work remains primarily ‘a way to make a living’. She worries that having a job apt to disrupt the status quo and drive social and ecological transformation risks becoming ‘a new kind of capital’, available only to those with access to certain schools and networks. In this scenario, ‘the question of meaning becomes a new marker of the social fracture’.

Down-to-earth business

Professor Simon Persico draws the threads together. The demands of the young are ‘inciting the world of work to reinvent itself’, he writes, with knock-on effects. At Sciences Po, the master’s course in ecological transition has abandoned an ‘exclusively utilitarian conception of teaching and training’ that prepares students to fit into a system of production. A broad, interdisciplinary curriculum with no defined career trajectory is a ‘luxury’, he admits, that a grande école can allow itself.

But a more flexible, democratic conception of work appears indispensable to revitalize French society. The era of strictly divided labour sectors, and the ‘acceleration of pace and productivity that goes with it’, must give way to roles combining ‘concrete … down-to-earth tasks, and tasks involving strategic or political thinking’. France’s business landscape – ‘still characterized by bad practices, struggling to instil autonomy and teamwork … and giving little room to workers’ representatives on the boards of directors’ – must evolve, ‘giving workers the power to decide the destiny of the organization in which they work’. More responsibility, not less, seems to be the watchwords.

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Published in cooperation with CAIRN International Edition, written by Cadenza Academic Translations.

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