The meanings of precarious employment among young people

It was suggested earlier that young people belong to a group particularly affected by labour market precarity. In order to examine the impact of precarious employment on socio-economic consciousness, life strategies, and civic involvement of young people, a Polish-German research project NCN-DFG PREWORK in 2016- 2020 was carried out.2 It consisted of both qualitative and quantitative modules. In the former one, 63 qualitative biographical narrative interviews were conducted with workers aged 18-35 who experienced various forms of precarious employment in Poland. They were employed in non-standard forms of employment (different from full-time, open-ended contracts), low-paid jobs, being temporarily unemployed following a sequence of temporary jobs or doing unpaid or low-paid traineeships. Each interview included a complete life story, questions of clarifications of life events, and a range of additional questions on the issues such as the meanings of education, work, family life, class identifications, civic activism, and future plans. Additionally, the project team, led by Juliusz Gardawski and Jan Czarzasty (Czarzasty, 2020; Gardawski, 2020), carried out a survey (CATI) of a representative sample of young people aged 18-30 in Poland (N= 1000). A similar approach was followed in a mirror project carried out in Germany within a team led by Vera Trappmann.3

For the purpose of this chapter the most important question of the project concerns the effects of the precarisation on the socio-economic consciousness and life strategies of young precarious workers. The PREWORK CATI survey in Poland suggests that almost half (48.8%) of young working Poles confirmed to have worked in precarious conditions, defined in the survey question as short-term, low-paid jobs, in the past. Table 6.2 summarises the answers of the interviewees regarding their current employment situation and their desired type of contracts, i.e. the ones which they would choose if they were able to do so.

Table 6.2 makes it clear that a permanent employment contract is not necessarily the most desired form of employment: experienced by 35.8% of interviewees as their current form of employment, it was desired by 39.9% of young working Poles smdied (and 43.5% of young Poles interviewed in general). However, 27.3% of young working Poles wished to be solo self-employed and 26.9% wished to be employers; 47.8% of those with permanent contracts would prefer to become self-employed or employers. Permanent employment was chosen statistically more often by women (50.4%) than men (32.8%), who opted more frequently for self-employed and employer status. By contrast, a tiny minority wished to be employed with any kind of temporary employment; only 6 interviewees (out of 224 in total working with civil law contracts and temporary employment contracts) wanted to keep such contracts.

While a strong desire to be an employer is nothing new in Poland and it was noted in earlier research, for instance among blue-collar workers in the 1990s (Gardawski, 2000), it is striking that over one-fourth of our interviewees declared their wish to be solo self-employed, a situation often connected with a rather high level of precarity and de facto dependency on large contractors. The preference for starting an individual business over permanent employment

Table 6.2 The current and desired type of work situation among young Poles (in %)

Work situation

Working Poles (N = 574)

Young Poles (N=1000)




Solo self-employed








Permanent employment contract




Temporary employment contract (incl. probation period)




Contract for specific task




Contract of mandate




Informal employment




Other answers/No answers




Source. Own elaboration based on The PREWORK CATI survey.

Notes. N= 1000 Poles, aged 18-30.

fits well into the ideologies of meritocracy and entrepreneurship, as well as the notion of the ‘rationality of individualised agency and personal responsibility’. According to Kubala (2019, p. 294), who coined this term based on the discourse analysis of focus group interviews with working Poles, it includes, among others, the equalisation of freedom and entrepreneurship and the definition of social justice as the result of ‘individual agency and systemic deregulation of social life’.

Further elaboration of the result is possible by looking closer at the meanings of precarious employment and biographical responses to it reflected in qualitative interviews with young people. In the subsequent sections, a simplified version of the typology of work-related life strategies is presented consisting of two types only (cf. for a full version Mrozowicki et al., 2020; Mrozowicki & Trappmann. 2020).

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