Observers of social change have been fascinated for a long time by the question of how the employment structure evolves: toward good jobs, bad jobs, or increasing polarization? Three issues are at stake. At the microlevel of single jobs, the concern is with the quality of new employment created. The question raised is to know whether jobs are becoming better paid, more highly skilled, and endowed with greater autonomy. At the macrolevel of social structure, the debate evolves around the question whether occupational change transforms affluent countries into large middle-class societies or, on the contrary, into increasingly divided class societies. The two levels of analysis are bridged by the concern for social mobility. Here, the question is as to whether change in the employment structure allows forthcoming generations to move to more rewarding jobs than those held by their parents – or whether downward mobility is the more likely outcome. The direction of change has then manifest implications for parties' electoral constituencies and citizens' political preferences.
This chapter strives to shed light on some of these issues by analyzing the pattern of occupational change in Western Europe since 1990. It does so by examining the evolution of the employment structure with large-scale microlevel data for Britain, Denmark, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland. The central question is to know what kind of occupations have been expanding and declining over the last two decades: high-paid jobs, low-paid jobs, or both?
Our analysis shows that the five countries under study underwent a process of major occupational upgrading. The only ambiguity concerns the question whether the process is clear-cut or has a polarizing twist to it. The labor market created ample opportunities at the high-skilled end of the occupational structure but made perspectives bleak in the lower-middle range of jobs held by clerks and production workers.
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