50 years of change in employment

The French workforce and employment structure has undergone considerable changes in the past 50 years. In the 1960s, the French workforce consisted mainly of low-qualified male workers employed on long-term contracts in large industrial companies, whereas today the composition and structure of the French labour market is more diverse with large numbers of women, more part-time, temporary and self-employed workers, and a shift from blue-collar to white-collar work.

A recent paper (in French, 166Kb PDF) by Oliver Marchand of the Demographic and Social Statistics Directorate of the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee) examined trends in the workforce and employment structure in France between 1962 and 2007. Highlights of his findings are discussed below.

Changes in social structures reflected in employment

Large numbers of women have entered the labour market in France over the past decades due to:

  • the need for a second wage within households;
  • specific demands from companies and sectors;
  • the desire from women for greater autonomy and independence.

The increase in the participation of female workers has increased the number of those people classed as an ‘employee’ or white-collar worker. As a consequence, there are now more white-collar workers (of which four out of five are women) than manual or blue-collar workers (four out of five of which were men). In 1962, there were 7.9 million blue-collar workers from an active working population of 19 million and today this category represents only six million out of an active working population of 26 million (Figure 1). In the meantime, the percentage of white-collar workers has surged.

Figure 1: Structure of employment by job category in France, 1962–2007

Figure 1: Structure of employment by job category in France, 1962–2007

Source: Population census

Increase in overall qualification level of workforce

The improvement in the average qualification level of jobs is linked to the rise in the education level of the French population (Figure 2). The share of the workers with no educational qualification at all dropped from 79% in 1962 to 16% in 2007. Over the same period, the share of workers with a post-secondary diploma surged from 3% to 33%. In comparison to other developed countries, education straight after school is far more developed in France than adult continuing education.

Figure 2: Education level of French population, 1962–2007

Figure 2: Education level of French population, 1962–2007

Source: Population census

The rise in the average qualification level of jobs occurred simultaneously with the transition from an agricultural and industrialised economy to a high technology and service economy. The share of managers and superior occupations rose from 5% in 1962 to 16% in 2007 and intermediary positions from 11% to 25%. These developments have been accompanied by a decrease in physical strain, which tends to be replaced by more stress and mental strain.

Women at work and inequalities

Although women have entered the labour market in massive numbers, gaining financial autonomy and personal recognition, they often face different employment conditions to men. They are more likely to be in part-time work, have employee status or hold an intermediary position.

Figure 3: Share of women in labour market, 1962–2007 (%)

Figure 3: Share of women in labour market, 1962–2007 (%)

Source: Population census

Although it is now easier for women to become managers than some decades ago, they are still more likely than men to hold low-qualified jobs in the services sector. Women represent the majority of employees in sectors that used to correspond to domestic tasks that have been externalised such as childminding, care and cleaning. These support services have been the very condition of access to employment for many women. On top of the already existing inequalities between men and women, this created a new source of inequalities between women who have well paid jobs and can pay for these services, and women who hold low-qualified, low-paid jobs (such as involuntary part-time jobs) and must perform their domestic duties themselves.

Diversification and uncertainty of employment status

According to the population census, the share of temporary jobs (defined as short-term contracts and temporary agency work) increased from 10% of employees in 1990 (the first time the question was asked) to 15% in 2007. These jobs have been driven by the needs of enterprises for more flexibility and reactivity to fluctuations in demand. According to the census, part-time work also increased from 12% to 18% over the same time period. Both developments testify to the increasingly precarious nature of employment.

Census data also confirm the emergence of categories of employees who are not manual workers (ouvriers); they made up almost 72% of the workforce in 1962 and nearly 90% in 2007 (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Proportion of white-collar workers in the workforce, 1962–2007 (%)

Figure 4: Proportion of white-collar workers in the workforce, 1962–2007 (%)

Source: Population census

The self-employed category has recently developed in France with the rise of freelancers working for only one customer, often one enterprise that has outsourced a service. This phenomenon may also indicate an adaptation to the economic crisis, individuals having to rely on their own resources when enterprises do not create enough jobs to absorb what is on offer. This helps to blur the boundary between ‘employed’ and ‘self-employed’ as people switch from one status to another according to the job opportunities available.

Commentary

This paper by Olivier Marchand constitutes a comprehensive mapping of the main changes in the past five decades in France as a result, but also as a driver, of social changes. Unlike the situation in the past, employment today is more fragmented with a diversification of workers’ status, employment conditions, the lengths and rhythms of activity, and wage structures as a result of changes in the labour market.

Reference

Marchand, O., ‘50 ans de mutations de l’emploi (166Kb PDF)’, Insee Première, No. 1312, September 2010.

Sarah Mongourdin-Denoix, HERA

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