The meaning of work

How do young people perceive working life and what value do they place on it? What was the attitude of their predecessors? How about the “intermediate” age group of 30–50 year olds? Can we really speak of intergenerational conflict in the field of work? Researchers from the European SPReW(1) project look at our social relations.

Research teams from six countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Portugal), comprising mainly sociologists, are analysing changes in the relations that unite or divide the generations in their working lives. The objective is to examine how sociocultural changes and institutional factors have contributed to greater solidarity or the emergence of new tensions in the workplace. With this aim, the researchers undertook a general study of intergenerational relations, family structures and lifestyles, and social cohesion, where both negative and positive intergenerational relations have emerged. “We examined the evolving relationship with work among the various generations. Is the generation to which people belong a key factor in defining relations between age groups, or do other factors also contribute to dividing or uniting the generations?” asks Patricia Vendramin, coordinator of the SPReW project.

As is so often the case, the countries of Europe appear to be both similar and different. The principal attribute most countries share in terms of work is… its scarcity. The youngest and oldest members of society are in the same boat in this regard. It is the intermediate age group of 30-50 year olds who reap the greatest rewards from working life. By adapting more readily to the new demands for job flexibility imposed on employees, they are able to remain in the labour market. It is only when work is outsourced or production is moved overseas that this intermediate generation is left high and dry. In addition, many increasingly highly qualified young women struggle in silence day after day in pursuit of that elusive work/life balance.

A few years of certainty

Work is no longer like the long, peaceful river that emerged in the heyday following the Second World War (1945-1975). In those days, older people were respected because of their experience. They played a strategic role in the social integration and education of the younger generation, who unquestioningly followed in their footsteps. The workers of yesteryear (today’s older generation) felt (and indeed feel) a sense of belonging to a community and identified with their particular group, which had influence – whether through symbolic opposition to the powers that be or in its ability to bargain via trade unions. “This sense of solidarity was often more important to them than any individual recognition that their employers might give them. Their personal and professional careers were mapped out in advance and there was little pressure for subjective commitment to work or self-fulfilment.

”(2) However, this idyllic picture was not to last. In the 1970s, a series of imbalances and abrupt changes disrupted growth, investment and employment. The 1980s marked a period of insecurity and social change, with technological innovation perhaps being only the most symbolic manifestation of growing “modernity”. The first to be affected were the younger and older generations, while the least qualified were the most vulnerable. In France, 37 % of unskilled young people remain unemployed for five years after leaving compulsory education, compared with 18 % of those completing secondary education and 8% of those with post-secondary qualifications.

Individualism versus solidarity?

In stark contrast to their predecessors, young people recruited in recent years are experiencing increasing individualisation with respect to employer–employee relations, individually tailored employment contracts and, in the optimal scenario, personal opportunities for improving their prospects. Why would they identify with their peers when they find themselves in such a competitive environment? In 2002, the German survey Shell Jugendstudie, conducted every two years, showed that boys and girls in reunified Germany were entering the new millennium with ‘performance’ as their watchword. Most of these young people had switched their main concerns from the environment to the economy, with self-fulfilment and practical problems being more important than social reform.

“However, such individualism is not the sole province of young people and, despite the pessimism that often accompanies it, this does not necessarily mean that the young reject solidarity or cooperation in (and outside) the workplace. According to researchers, solidarity is often assessed according to outdated criteria that fail to take into account contemporary forms of shared commitment and solidarity.”

Past and present

How are intergenerational relationships in the workplace today? Young people may view experienced workers as embodying hard-toachieve success or, conversely, as an “antimodel”. In the eyes of the older generation, new recruits represent a threat to their jobs – especially in cases of restructuring. Some analysts point to an intergenerational power struggle, whilst others see the generations as engaged in a forced companionship that is likely to end in failure. Many analysts also underestimate the influence and role of the intermediate generation of 30-50 year olds. For the most part, however, the life of a firm is determined by its management, human resource policy and organisation. Harmony in the workplace is a question of management strategy.

Irrespective of which generation a person belongs to, their relationship with work also depends on their path in life, social environment, personal experiences, choices – whether conscious or unconscious – and the historical context in which they grew up. Hungary is a good example of this mix, where a team of workers might include people who grew up under hard-line socialism, others under the more lax “Goulash Communism” regime and yet others who have only known “freedom”. Older Hungarians have never experienced unemployment and their knowledge is less valuable. In fact, the youngest generation of Hungarians, who have grown up with no traditions or benchmarks, (together with the former East Germans) could well be the most individualistic young people in Europe.

Ethics of authenticity

When analysing today’s youth – often considered to be egocentric and negative – Charles Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Philosophy at Montreal’s McGill University (Canada), spoke of ethics of authenticity. “These special ethics can explain young people’s meagre involvement, or even their risk of social disengagement, when they feel forced to carry out a task without being recognised for their work, or when they have no interest in it. However, young people can become motivated when their sense of initiative is acknowledged and when their work allows them to express their potential and their need to find a meaning to life.”

The danger, here, is underinvestment in work, especially among management personnel. Researchers also point to underinvestment in the new forms of organisation currently found in IT firms and in multimedia, communication and consultancy firms.

The haven of the family

Although intergenerational solidarity is little in evidence in the workplace, it is stronger in the family, for more material than emotional reasons, according to SPReW researchers. Young people live with their parents for longer because they are students or unemployed. Italy beats all the records in this respect, with 60.2 % of its 18–34 year olds living at home (2005 figures). However, this also means that they lose their independence, are unable to get married and start a home, and are financially dependent. All these psychological factors contribute in no small measure to people’s attitude to the world of work. Taking a short-termist view of life, limited to a small, safe social circle (friends, family and associations) and only committing to projects one day at a time in no way resembles the sort of long-term, shared commitment that was so common in the 1980s.

“Another disconcerting feature of young people’s paths in life is the growing de standardisation and individualisation of their careers, although this should not be viewed as entirely negative.”

Christine Rugemer

  1. Social Patterns of Relation to Work, a project mainly involving researchers, with the participation of officials from the French Ministry of Labour and the Social Development Agency of the European Trade Union Confederation.
  2. All quotes are from Patricia Vendramin.


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Analysis, comparison, suggestions

A two-year research project (2006–2008), SPReW analyses changes in the relationships with work of different generations in six countries. This has resulted in a vast collection of empirical data, selection and evaluation of good policy practices, and a transnational comparative analysis of these issues. Approximately 30 individual and group interviews, conducted in all six countries, have supplemented this work. The final phase will be to formulate guidelines and recommendations to improve the way in which the different age groups and intergenerational relations are managed. The recommendations will be discussed by public policy-makers, social stakeholders and researchers at seminars held in each of the partner countries and at European level. Several documents are already available for downloading from the SPReW website.


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