The voice, loyalty and exit of precarious workers in Germany

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Vera Trappmann is an Associate Professor in Work and Employment Relations. Vera’s research engages with the comparison of labour relations across Europe. A version of this blog post first appeared on the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change blog. This blog post is based on research conducted as part of the PREWORK project, Beethoven | Project: UMO-2014/15/G/HS4/04476.

Photograph of Dr Vera Trappmann

‘Precarious workers’, as defined by the International Labor Rights Forum, are people who take on a job role that has a permanent need eg take-away delivery, but are not given the same rights as those in permanent employment.

This type of employment happens in many countries, with workers often subjected to unstable employment, lower wages and more dangerous working conditions. Because of their employment status, precarious workers rarely receive social benefits and are often denied the right to join a union. Even when they have the right to unionise, workers are scared to organise if they know they are easily replaceable. Precarious workers are much more likely to be women, minorities and migrant workers.

In recent years, permanent employment across a number of sectors has shifted to precarious jobs through outsourcing, the use of employment agencies, and using classifications such as “short-term” or “independent contractors.”

Precarious working in Germany

  • More than half of Germans under 24 years old have only ever had a short-term work contract. For those under 35 years old, this figure is 30%.
  • Half of all temporary workers are under the age of 35.
  • A quarter of 18-24 year olds live under the poverty line.
  • 10% of 18-24 year olds are neither in work nor in training (so-called NEETS); and 6% of young people leave school without any qualifications.

However, even with all these eye-opening statistics, the young working in these precarious conditions often do not act, or ‘mobilise’, against this precarity, at least not on a large scale. Young precarious workers in Germany tend not to engage in conflict with their employers or participate in protest but rather remain passive, sympathetic supporters of trade unions and wait until their earning situation is no longer precarious before they mobilise.

Recently, I have conducted research to try and understand what drives young Germans to mobilise, or more accurately, to not mobilise. In particular, I have focussed on subjective factors, such as the individual’s upbringing, personal history and emotions. To do this, I used Hirschman’s scheme of ‘exit, voice and loyalty’ as potential reactions towards precarity. The analysis draws on results of the PREWORK project where we conducted 60 biographic interviews with precariously living young adults in Germany under the age of 35.


Definition: ‘voice’, in this context, is the mobilisation of workers.

Findings from our research: A unique finding from our study was that there were two decisive factors for mobilisation against precarious work:

  1. Having a higher level of education, ie higher academic degrees
  2. Having a strong occupational identity eg researchers, artists or medical doctors. It appears that if the individual’s occupation is not seen as “high priority” in life, there was no mobilisation.

Participants of our study were more likely to act if they had experienced or observed social injustice in the past. A strong sense of self-belief and the ability to succeed was needed for an employee to mobilise. Of those who mobilised, it seemed they all held very different views from that of their parents and had all experienced some form of conflictive separation from their parents. It also seemed that the rejection of their parents’ lifestyles promoted their own political engagement.

Example: Noah, the carpenter’s apprentice

Noah is 28, and stopped his studies to begin a carpenter’s apprenticeship. Noah considers his trade as an almost artistic activity and this provides him with a strong occupational identity. For Noah, it is less about the concrete working conditions in a firm that are important and more about the general working conditions in a capitalist system that he rejects. Noah therefore joined a co-operative in which the incomes of its members are pooled and divided among all, so that all members are less dependent on individual wages and their own ability and necessity to work constantly. For Noah, the process of separation from his parents had a strong influence on his engagement in the politics of work. His parents separated in a painful custody battle, so Noah left home, lived on the street, and became part of the punk scene. At 18, he travelled for almost two years, by bicycle, through Europe and during this time read “leftist literature”.

Noah believes that his experience of his parents’ separation led to him seeking togetherness in alternative, collective structures. He lives in a leftist-oriented communal housing project and engages in an anarchist union movement. Noah’s involvement in the politics of work is, for him, a strong expression of his estrangement from his parents.


Definition: In contrast to ‘voice’, the loyalty of workers is not a critique of conditions, but rather an adaptation to them.

Findings from our research: Being loyal to the system is the effect of normalising precarity, so it is no longer perceived as something bad. Rather, precarity is considered something temporary; a difficult situation that can, over time, or with a substantial educational investment, resolve itself. Here, a strong belief in meritocracy is of consequence: “if I invest enough, the system will reward me”.

Example: Anna and her search for a suitable occupation

Anna is an example of someone experiencing the effects of loyalty. Anna is 30, has two Masters degrees and several internships, international work and academic experience on her CV. With all of this, Anna has still not had an employment contract lasting more than six months. As an adopted child in an upper middle-class family, Anna enjoyed generous support during her education and her parents and partner are able to provide financial security, should she need this. Despite this, Anna was in a state of depression during much of the long job application phase after her studies. Anna is still searching for a suitable occupational profile for herself. Although she suffers from insecurity in her current work situation in a public administrative position and complains of the short-term contracts, she holds fast to the idea that through sufficient effort she will find a secure position at some point in the future.


Definition: ‘Exit’ – to change employment eg switch sector, change from formal to informal work, or more extremely partake in illegal work or resign from employment. Of those we interviewed, we found this action of escape ranged from taking a sabbatical or regular employment pauses, to cases of more extreme and permanent change, as described in the example below.

Findings from our research: When trying to understand why someone would engage in exit behaviours, we identified that participants felt a lack of recognition in the workplace. We also found that young adults who are trying to find their initial place in the occupational world but fail, may choose to exit and give up work, especially if the work is detrimental to their health and wellbeing. The ability to leave work is accessible to a greater proportion of the workforce when an alternative income is available. In Germany, the welfare state makes it possible for some young, single women who are mothers to have a level of financial security, albeit low, that may mean the role of motherhood may replace that of employment.

Example: Cynthia’s gradual withdrawal from the labour market

Cynthia is an example of a highly qualified person who, due to a lack of recognition in the workplace, chose to exit. Cynthia was 35 at the time of the interview and, like Anna, she has both a German and international Master’s degree and had already collected a multitude of positions in her work history, in precarious jobs in different areas (at university, in gastronomy, and logistics). She rejected the option of doctoral studies, research and teaching because in her experience, university working conditions are unhealthy (overwork, stress, lack of security and recognition). As co-researcher in a research project in which she was employed for two years on renewable research-assistant contracts, she received — despite her responsible job — insufficient pay, no job security, no social security, nor the possibility of any say in her organisational unit.

Though Cynthia saw in this work, at least in part, an opportunity for her own self-realisation, this ultimately did not happen for her, so she gradually withdrew from the labour market and [finally] emigrated to Spain to live in a commune.

Is there scope for change?

Our research has highlighted that irrespective of the labour market, sector, or welfare state, the mobilisation of workers depends on personal resources and subjective factors. Therefore, when personal factors play such an important role in an individual’s employment, is it right to ask if and how such personal conditions could be changed to make young workers more critical towards precarity?

Not all personal experiences can be factored into workplace frameworks, but employers should be mindful that the politics of the workplace can be adjusted by diverse societal actors, unions, the media, politics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and researchers.

In comparison to other countries, Germany’s protest against the precarity of work for young adults developed late. Whether such protests continue is yet to be seen. Strikes by Deliveroo drivers and a collective wage increase for student part-time workers could be an indication of what is to come. Past protests have succeeded in creating communication spaces in which collective identities are formed that can exercise social criticism.

Irrespective of the future of youth mobilisation in Germany, the overriding message from our research is that social inequality is not an economic necessity or the result of different individual investments, but rather the result of political struggles in the arena of work and the lack of capacities of individuals to take up this struggle.

What next for this research?

In the next stage of this research, we will study examples where precarious workers did protest. We are running three workshops investigating the mobilisation of workers around platform work. The first ‘Contenting Platform Work’ workshop was held on Thursday 11 July 2019. Future workshops will be advertised on the CERIC events page.

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