Young Workers and the Transformations of Commitment

What are the attitudes and inclinations of today’s young generation of wage-earners toward collective organization, in the context of developed capitalism? I explore this question on the basis of surveys carried out in France and focusing on the stance of young wage-earners (jeunes salariés) toward work, the enterprise, protest movements, and, most recently, politics.1

The category of young workers has fluid boundaries; there is no homogeneous generational cohort. On the contrary, there are many lines of division, based on education, social origin, and place of residence. One might say that the generational dimension does not exist as such but is crisscrossed by such basic social markers as those of class, ethnic origin, and gender whose impact often takes the form of discrimination. The present discussion, however, will be limited to young wage-earners with at least a high school education (jeunes salariés diplômés), who were the principal subjects of our surveys.2

Another consideration we must take into account is the fact that young people embody in accentuated form the values and behaviors that one finds in the rest of the society. In particular, they manifest heightened levels of basically negative tendencies such as individualism, depoliticization, and conformity.3  And yet, although the young are in certain ways culturally distinct (as in their use of social networking and the new information technologies), in other respects they do not differ much from the rest of the population. As Guy Michelat and Michel Simon point out in their book on workers and politics,4 the young are no more favorable than their elders toward free market policies. On the other hand, they are much more sympathetic to cultural liberalism.

In the particular case of the young high school graduates that concern us here, the negative dispositions are sharply etched. They are often accused of being “individualistic,” “apolitical,” hostile to any collective action. Worse, they are reproached with tending to advance the narrow interests arising from their intermediate class position, by touting on the labor market what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “cultural capital” represented by their diplomas.

What is the truth of the matter?  Are these young educated workers malleable, capable of adapting smoothly to the “flexible enterprise”? Are they ready to accept downward mobility, the likely disjunction between their career ambitions and their real professional prospects? Or might they instead be disposed to engage in struggles for dignity and for the recognition of their work, and therefore to challenge, here and now, the dominant systemic assumptions?

Our discussion is in three parts. First, we examine these workers’ perception of the current crisis and of the consequent uncertainties that it provokes in them even before they enter the labor market. Second, we ask how they view the enterprise, the meaning of work, and the goals of professional recognition. This aspect is often misunderstood or hidden, but it is precisely in the domain of vocation (“love of a job well done”) that much of the young workers’ commitment comes into play.

In the third part of the discussion, we offer some critical observations on the activist participation (militantisme) and the collective actions (mobilisations contestataires) of young activists who often burst suddenly – or with a playful upending of dominant practices – into pubic space. This leads us to inquire into the young generation’s image of institutional politics and its aspirations to civic participation.

1. The economy of uncertainty

Young adults inhabit a competitive universe which generates continuous and massive uncertainty. They are aware of the intense self-affirmation that is necessary for professional advancement. They know that in order to “succeed” in a certain way, they must become their own public relations agents. Finding a job is not like exercising a basic right; it is more a matter of a “performance” aimed at placing oneself favorably in the labor market. This situation structurally reproduces individualist traits, except that here it is not a matter of withdrawal or isolation but rather one of networking and interaction.

The young workers thus find themselves uncomfortably in the middle of the upheavals that affect the world of the enterprise. They must constantly confront the increasing complexity of economic organization and the uncertainties of their own future. The continuous technological upgrading of enterprises makes it impossible to envision one’s long-term prospects. The worker, producer of wealth, bearer of skills and talents, is used like a dependent variable. Hence the non-identification with “enterprise culture.”

Then comes the shockwave of the post-2008 crisis. Young workers are puzzled by the mechanisms that provoked the crisis. They don’t really understand how the financial markets function. Still, what is striking in their observations is the breadth of their awareness that the world is in bad shape. They recognize the destructive impact of a system of economic organization that has established the “free and competitive market” as its guiding principle. They realize that successive deregulations have led to the biggest international economic crisis since that of 1929. In sum, most of them believe that the advent of crisis has brought back into view the underlying reality of the system. It is a brusque and violent reawakening. The economic system has become unbalanced, irrational, uncontrollable.

At the same time, they emphasize that enterprises take advantage of the crisis to accelerate restructuring, reduce their workforces, and cut back wages. The crisis thus serves as an alibi to justify pre-established choices. It also reveals the fragility of the workers’ condition. It reinforces casualization, counteracts demands related to wages, work-time, and job-security, and normalizes the status of “throwaway worker.”

2. The enterprise and struggles for recognition

Young workers have a questioning attitude toward the world of the enterprise. They realize that the enterprise functions first of all in an unstable economic space. It does not have a long-term plan for its “human capital.” In general, the enterprise expects its workers to be immediately prepared for their tasks. But at the same time, it guarantees neither their jobs nor any recognition of their contribution; it will not hesitate to let them go in hard times. Hence the disillusioned, critical, and sometimes scornful attitude of workers toward the enterprise. They stay with it, but in a spirit of caution. They commit themselves to it, but without signing a blank check, without fully identifying with it.

More fundamentally, the young workers realize that the enterprise itself is “perishable,” not only as a legal entity, but above all as a work-community. In these conditions, the new generation of wage-workers experience increasing precariousness in any sense of affective belonging to the enterprise. They have internalized culturally the fact that they will not make their whole career in a single enterprise. From now on, control of their future requires them to continuously reassess their “employability.” The enterprise is not the goal of one’s career but only its vector. It is a relationship of convenience rather than one of mutual identification.

The meaning of work

The great majority of young educated workers say that they are convinced of the usefulness of their occupation. It is the idea of feeling useful that undergirds their professionalism. They do not see work as a mere instrumental activity necessary to support themselves and their families. They see it as being also a substantial contribution to society. This conviction that work not only pays (the worker) but also serves (the collectivity) is a constant source of motivation.

The sense of social usefulness persists even in the absence of personal fulfillment on the job. It can certainly be frustrated or diverted in the absence of professional recognition, but it nonetheless constitutes a distinguishing trait of one’s relationship to one’s job. Our young respondents want to do something useful in their work: they want to be able to value what they have done, to experiment with new skills, to make new efforts. They want to be qualitatively and not just quantitatively efficient. This encourages them to be more mobile than earlier generations, especially early in their careers, in order to develop professional opportunities and to satisfy their quest for meaning in work.

There is of course a sudden mobility, linked to the casualization of employment. Even apart from this, however, educated young workers become culturally attuned to the logic of the short term. But this does not stop them from seeking professional stability and the advantages associated with it. Thus most of them hope for a career of professional self-fulfillment and an expanded sphere of competences.

Work and commitment

A large proportion of young educated wage-earners experience work as a trial by fire, a challenge, an incitement to success and to the affirmation of their creative capacities – perhaps even as a way of demonstrating their own value and the value of their activity. This characteristic attitude presupposes a certain commitment to the stakes of one’s profession.

The question of commitment to work opens a new set of issues. It can be argued that the relationship to work, the acquisition of skills, and the quality of one’s professional investment can be experienced, especially by young people, as a kind of generational investment in which individual success may reflect social values. This adds a nuance to the celebrated individualism of the younger generations.

From a sociological standpoint, this individualism – supposedly postmodern5 – is a complex phenomenon arising from the interaction of a number of social forces. It reflects a demand for professional achievement – an extension of the striving for self-realization – beyond the individualism of the market. One can even suggest that it represents a desire to appropriate positively the various facets of professional life. This politics of individuality is not reducible to a narcissistic defense against threats coming from the outside world. It is based on a legitimate concern for self-realization in work, as an authentic and indispensable value. In this sense, this politics of individuality clashes with the tendency of neo-capitalism to respond to the desires for individuality that it stimulates only in a truncated and frustrating way, namely, by imposing a commodified and competitive notion of the human person.

Hence, if young educated workers say that they lack motivation in their work, they are explicitly posing the question of recognition. Their expectations of return on their professional investment are strong. Lacking recognition and future prospects, their faith in the enterprise is called into question. They can thus be led to leave a company that has been reluctant to trust them. This desire for a change of professional scenery does not necessarily mean that they will look for the highest-paying employer; they are more interested in finding a job that will bring them recognition.

Recognition can be understood in several senses. It may refer to relationships with colleagues, with clientele, or with the hierarchy; it may have to do with professional standing or with pay-levels. Conviviality with one’s team, solidarity and respect among peers, are comforting to those newly arrived in the enterprise. Also, a good appreciation of one’s work by a client is a source of satisfaction and motivation. Conversely, client dissatisfaction has a disruptive effect on the organization of tasks, and thereby induces distancing and suffering at work.

In a similar sense, the desire for recognition in the enterprise is also made difficult – or in any case uncertain – by the introduction of new technologies. Because work activity is assessed on the basis of financial considerations or bureaucratic guidelines, it is often felt to be hindered, ignored, or unappreciated. It loses its distinctive character; its meaning disappears. Hence lack of motivation, if not defection. It is precisely this failure – relative yet recurrent, discontinuous yet omnipresent – that has caused the distancing of young workers with regard to the organization of the work process.

3. The new activism and public action

While young workers want long-term development, they are apprehensive about long-term commitment. They do not identify with traditional forms of committed activism grounded in membership organizations (militantisme). They prefer solidarity actions, local experiments, sharply focused interventions in support of a particular project or a just cause. The common basis of their impulses is an attitude of responsibility, centered in the values of the human person. The model of activism in which one invests a good part of one’s life is very far removed from their vision of the world. The conception of an activism that entails discipline is viewed by them as dated: how can one claim to emancipate individuals while demanding their absolute obedience to an ideology and a practice?

And yet, many of the behaviors of the young reflect a real sensitivity in matters of ecology, cultural diversity, and human dignity. However, once they are out of school and in the labor market, their availability for engagement in the public sphere is greatly reduced. In effect, while the young are available objectively, they are much less so subjectively. They are first of all drawn to the necessity of shaping their lives. They must address questions related to life-choices, experimenting with different kinds of work and focusing on their personal goals. They are thus only minimally available for engagement in the collective, in the streets, in public action with others. Young people of working age are less available than they were in their earlier years and are also less available than their elders.

Finally, we must consider the context of activism. The difficulties faced by young people today are not the same as those faced by their parents and are even further removed from those of the immediate post-1945 period. The structural factor that has changed the social landscape is mass unemployment and the development of casualization. This factor weighs heavily on collective actions. Young wage-earners, as well as those seeking work, are compelled from every direction to anticipate retrenchment of their ambitions and their demands.

Nonetheless, a certain proportion of young people cross the threshold of activism or say that they are inclined to do so. There is a plurality of forms of engagement: in professional activity, in trade unions, in voluntary associations, and in public space. According to our hypothesis, attachment to defending professional values sensitizes and predisposes people to other forms of engagement. Still, the readjustments and the transitions from one form of engagement to another are neither automatic nor necessarily desirable for those concerned.

What role for trade unions?

The young workers we interviewed have a basically positive view of trade unions. Their verdict is unanimous: “trade unions are necessary” to the welfare and prosperity of the enterprise. Trade union work is a way of defending the enterprise. In so doing, it performs three roles: 1. An informational role. The trade union can provide supplementary insight enabling workers to better situate themselves in the current context, to understand the operations of the enterprise, and to give them an awareness of their rights. It encourages wage-earners to “open their eyes.” 2. Representation. The union enables wage-earners to make themselves heard. It is at once an organizer, a mediator, and the transmitter of workplace concerns to management. 3. A counter-power in the enterprise, whose task is to oppose the visions and projects of management that go in the “wrong direction.”

But while the young workers’ view of trade unionism is on the whole favorable, it is at the same time demanding. They acknowledge the usefulness of trade unions, but they do not feel any compelling reason to join them. They want the unions to be open, strong, and efficient. But they hope that they will not need them. Three factors reinforce this distancing: the possession of a diploma, which predisposes them to relate to the employer as equals; the deeply ingrained idea that one can always vote with one’s feet by leaving an unappreciative enterprise; and the stereotypical image of unions as indifferent to the concerns of a younger generation entrapped by insecurity and the search for meaning.

The young workers’ principal complaint is that union activists are not much in evidence at the workplace. This “absenteeism” is in their eyes both a cause and a symptom of the weakening of unionism. It is therefore remarkable that one of the reasons cited by our respondents for not joining the union is that they are not invited to do so. Other factors further obstruct the young workers’ receptivity to unions. Some suggest that unionists have trouble shaking the image of “tired old malcontents,” “dissatisfied with everything,” “insincere” (de mauvaise foi), who show up when things are “going badly” to announce more “bad news.” Paradoxically, what many young workers deplore is not any overly radical positioning of the unions, but rather the lack of ambition and conviction in the promotion of their campaigns.

At the same time, the young workers often express a kind of moral admiration for trade union activism, which they appreciate both for its solidarity and for its perseverance. But this perception does not signify acceptance of the type of activism that the unions are currently practicing. Nor does it necessarily reflect a desire to join the union. In fact, there are two major obstacles surrounding the question of membership in a union.

On the one hand, the young workers hesitate to take on what they see as the “package deal” entailed by membership. They don’t want to be labeled or pigeonholed in their relations with the enterprise hierarchy and with their colleagues. Activism should be an expression of free choice on their part, reflecting their independence of trade union positions. For some, one can be active without joining (s’engager sans adhérer), just as one can act without taking on the persona of the committed unionist (militant).

On the other hand, fear that union-membership will jeopardize their careers is another factor inhibiting their joining the union. This fear is a recurrent theme in the observations made by young workers, including those in the public sector. Some express the view – sometimes the certainty – that joining a union, participation in a demonstration, and above all, being active in the union (action militante) are looked on unfavorably by management.

The reasons for this skeptical stance are not necessarily “ideological” but are above all practical. To identify with the union is to take a position and, potentially, to oppose the hierarchy which alone bestows the advances and the setbacks of one’s career. Many young workers thus tend to view unionization as a breach of the trust that binds them to enterprise-management. This attitude hurts union members. It is what I call the paradox of protection/exposure: One of the essential reasons for joining the union is to defend one’s interests as a wage-earner, but the very fact of joining puts at risk the individual who does so. 

More globally, we should keep in mind that the weak propensity to join, in France, is neither peculiar to young people nor a recent phenomenon. In fact, political parties as well as trade unions have trouble proving the day-to-day practical benefits of joining. It is above all during hopeful periods of mobilization that their skills and their resources are appreciated. But most of the time, individuals do not recognize the usefulness of organization unless they find themselves in an impasse. The challenge for organizations is to create a system of incentives to thwart free-rider behavior. And yet there is no magic formula for creating members.

In any case, the weakness of unionism does not signify an absence of questioning. Non-membership in a union does not signify unconditional acceptance of the ideology of the enterprise. On the contrary, many young workers claim that they carry out labor struggles “in their own manner,” without being “enrolled” (encartés). They commit themselves to defending a qualitative conception of work, a critical approach to their jobs and responsibilities, and certain human and professional values.

Being active without joining

There are some collectivities among the younger generation that are active around issues related to the system of job-training and the link between job-training and the labor market. The existence of structural mass unemployment, along with various dysfunctionalities of the educational system, accentuates the sense of insecurity that one feels upon entering adult life and work life.

To analyze the social meanings of an activist commitment, we take the example of two French groupings: Génération Précaire [Precarious Generation], which fights against the abusive exploitation of interns by enterprises, and Jeudi Noir [Black Thursday], which exposes the housing problems faced by students and young workers. Their common trait is to struggle against the casualization of work and the growing insecurity in the lives of young people. We can distinguish analytically six characteristic traits of these assemblages:

1. Organization. The social activists link themselves together informally, refusing the constraints of a hierarchical organization. The collectivity functions in horizontal networks. Decisions are taken by consensus rather than by the logic of majority rule.

2. Resources and means of action. The actions of the young activists are notable for their strongly symbolic character. The common trait is the will to unveil problems, to take account of opinion, and to sketch proposals and solutions. “One must be serious rather than furious.” The young activists thus build veritable strategies of communication to plead the legitimacy of their cause in public space.

They make heavy use, in spectacular ways, of both old and new tactics of collective action, such as requisition of space, occupation of institutional buildings, or marches, to attract media attention. The struggle to advance their demands is inseparable from the struggle for visibility. From this standpoint, the Internet is at once a tactic of the “new militancy” and an arena of social confrontation.

3. Logics of action. The social activists conceive their militant projects in accordance with a logic of direct action. They are not professional militants (labor leaders, politicians, intellectuals) defending “good causes” outside themselves. On the contrary, they are actors and authors of their own struggles, challenging on an ongoing basis the conditions of their own lives. Their new forms of collective action are engaged around multiple “causes”: the ordeal of unpaid interns; the need for housing; a guarantee of rights to employment, to healthcare, to an income, and to equality of education for all.

4. Alliances. Relations between the young activists and the organized labor movement are characterized by a desire for collaboration. But there are real obstacles to the maintenance of contacts. There remains considerable ignorance, distrust, and distance from both directions. Nonetheless, the labor movement remains a sounding board for publicizing collective action, even if the activists are harshly critical of the way it operates.

5. Impact. The political task of the social activists is to make visible a series of hidden or suppressed problems that are not addressed in conventional socio-political debate. Exposure of what “makes a problem” is the first stage of the struggle for recognition of rights. The challenge is not just to create public awareness, but to propose a change of the legal framework in favor of precarious workers. For example, thanks to the mobilization (since 2006) of Génération Précaire, which had previously approached the traditional social partners and political groups to awaken them and solicit their support, interns in France are now required by law to be paid a minimum of 400 euros per month after the first two months. This obligation was extended to the public sector in 2009. We may call this practice “activism of victories” (activisme des conquêtes).

6. Type of movement. These young activists engage in collective action without signing an agreement, without necessarily becoming formal members of an organization. Some scholars describe this as “self-service” or “à la carte” activism, representing a sharp break with the traditional model. But the reluctance to join is easily explained. The centralist image of the large organizations repels many activists. The bureaucratic functioning of the “apparatuses,” the mysterious power-plays inside them, and the fear of becoming part of a crushing vertical network all serve as disincentives to joining.

From these considerations, one can understand the young workers’ distancing themselves from large “ready-made” unions and political organizations. Nonetheless, the motivations for activist engagement partake of the same values of solidarity upheld historically by the labor movement and trade unionism: combatting injustices, attacking the deadly grip on society of mercantile individualism, and defending equality, public service, and social democracy.

In search of a politics

The current economic and financial crisis compels us to revisit the political ideas and positions of young people. With the eruption into public space of different new constituencies in France – and, more recently, with the movement of the Indignados in Spain and their counterparts in Greece – many young people are rediscovering the desire to exert their muscle in order to combat the growing casualization of work. They seek to defend their own dignity against the widespread scorn linked to the multiple forms of oppression, and to remove the barriers between what is desirable and what is possible. But this posture appears more as a mere wish for change than as a coherent alternative conception to the dominant forces.

The charge is often made that the Indignados have failed to put forward concrete proposals. But no social movement in history has offered complicated answers to resolve complicated problems. Movements are vectors of political innovation because they create events and set in motion the course of history, not because of any capacity to formulate complex strategies. For the moment, the message sent to society is that the prevailing politics have broken down. This is the force behind these democratic experiments, but it is also their limitation.

Moreover, young people believe that politics is too important to be entrusted to professional politicians. If there is one trait of institutional politics that repels them absolutely, it is precisely the political entrepreneuriat. It is the suffocation of political participation by bureaucratic structures, political “marketing,” and party-careerism. The phenomenon of governing elites who become star personalities is a disaster for the engagement of the young, because it confirms the idea that “politics is politicians.” The discouraging effect of the media only reinforces this terrible drift.

What disturbs young people is the feeling of not being listened to; of being manipulated as an electoral alibi in prefabricated speeches that are neither truthful nor authentic; and finally, of being stripped of their opinion and their message as these are hijacked on behalf of a politics lacking legitimacy.

Finally, why can’t young people find a place for themselves in official politics? Because the political sphere probably does not allow them to take control of their collective destiny. Because the parties do not seriously pose the problems that concern young people; they can neither listen to the young nor inspire them to become engaged.

What future do young people dream of? What are their preoccupations, their critiques, their projections? What opportunities do they have to participate politically in defense of human dignity, democracy, and the common good? How can the political process be redefined so as to allow for the new forms of politicization that cut across the younger generation? What useful political role can be played by progressive formations that look in this direction? Such fundamental questions demand concrete and credible responses. Only then will it be possible to restore hope and to overturn the currently dominant political regime.

Translated by Victor Wallis


1. Michel Vakaloulis, S’engager aujourd’hui: L’expérience de jeunes syndicalistes de l’UGICT-CGT. Survey report. Montreuil: UGICT-CGT, 2007; Engagement et distanciation des jeunes diplômés dans l’entreprise. Survey report. Montreuil: UGICT-CGT & URIF-CGT, 2009.

2. This category is defined by attainment of the French baccalauréat, which represents the equivalent of a year or two of post-high school education in the United States. Our survey consisted of fifty semi-structured interviews of at least an hour and a half, conducted face to face, away from the workplace. They were recorded and transcribed. Respondents were between 24 and 32 years of age; over half were women. Two-thirds were employed in the private sector (in metallurgy, banks, research firms, leisure and hospitality, property development, and professional occupations). The rest worked in civil service or in large public enterprises. Finally, half the respondents worked in the Paris region; the others, in provincial cities.

3. Olivier Galland, Sociologie de la jeunesse. 4th ed. Paris: Armand Colin, 2007, 198.

4. Les Ouvriers et la politique. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2004.

5. See Michel Vakaloulis, Le Capitalisme post-moderne: Matériaux pour une critique sociologique. Paris: PUF, 2001.

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