CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

In today’s labor market, workers can have very different relationships with the same employer, depending on whether they are employees on a temporary, fixed-term, or permanent contract, contractors working on an independent or “umbrella” basis, subcontractors, or freelancers. So is this the end of work as a collective enterprise?

1From the 1930s to the 1980s, a standardized schema of professional statuses was forged and reforged in the corporate sector. The old gulf between white- and blue-collar workers was consigned to the past, progressively replaced by a structure based on more stable legal status. Permanent contracts (known as CDIs in France) became the norm, not without creating friction in certain quarters, as the most suitable arrangement for meeting the needs of modern industry. This was the beginnings of the era of collective bargaining (which escalated after 1936) and, eventually, protection against dismissal (thanks to legislation passed in 1973 and 1975). In January 1978, the evolution was complete as the majority of French workers began receiving their salaries on a monthly basis. These changes were very obviously modeled on the public sector. Over the course of the 1970s, the new salaried society entered a critical period, overshadowed by redundancies and an explosion in “nonstandard” forms of work.

Nonstandard employment

In 1979, the French government introduced new legislation on fixed-term and temporary contracts (known as CDDs and CTTs respectively), leading to the emergence of a new “precariat” (Castel) characterized by:
1) Spectacular growth: in the early 1980s, when Brigitte Lozerec’h released her novel L’intérimaire (The Temp) (Julliard, 1982), only 3 percent of French employees were on temporary contracts. By 1996 it was 10.8 percent, rising to almost 12 percent by the end of 1998. That’s a fourfold expansion in fifteen-odd years.
2) Its normalization, as illustrated by the case of Maubeuge Construction Automobile (MCA), a subsidiary of Renault, which at the time had 1,200 workers on temporary contracts and 2,500 with permanent status.
3) Its destabilizing effect, reflected in a breakdown in the corporate collective into two groups: permanent employees, with guaranteed rights and in a position to assert them; and the precariat, faced with real obstacles to inclusion due to their temporary status, insecurity, and a lack of solidarity from permanent staff.

2A paradox has since ensued: the workforce has grown increasingly fragmented even as a new order has emerged. It is as if this new diversity has given rise to a more loose-knit corporate structure, incapable of inspiring the same sense of unity. This is both an economic and a cultural shift, as generations Y and Z have joined the labor force with new ideas about the meaning of work. [1] Still, the overall picture remains one of job security and permanent contracts, enjoyed by 86.5 percent of private-sector employees. [2] Wolfgang Lecher’s gloomy predictions seem a long way off. [3] He anticipated that the labor market would change dramatically in the 1980s, resulting in a solid core of permanent employees (25 percent), surrounded by an inner ring on less stable five-to-ten-year contracts (another 25 percent), and a far more diffuse outer ring left to navigate a snarl of precarious mixed employee/contractor arrangements (50 percent).

3As the lines have become blurred and a constellation of hybrid arrangements has emerged, it feels like the old order is rapidly breaking down. Here, it is worth pausing briefly to consider the case of the “permatemp.” The permatemp is a human stopgap, stepping in to cover a range of duties whenever required—casual work on a permanent contract. France also has a regulated “wage portage” system, where external contractors are treated as nominal employees. Not to mention the legal miasma inhabited by Uber drivers. The landscape has become so complex that, in March 2015, François Rebsamen, France’s labor minister at the time, told a senate hearing that: “An employment contract does not necessarily entail a subordinate relationship between employee and employer: it is a mutual agreement between two people acting on their own free will.” [4] While legally dubious, this does make at least some sense from a sociological perspective.

Real security and everything else

4In reality, there is no clear demarcation between permanent employees and the rest. It is more of an undulating spectrum, from genuine job security to everything else. Those without a permanent contract can be grouped into three categories: the insecure, the pseudo-secure, and the former secure.

The insecure

5Overall, the number of temporary and fixed-term positions has remained fairly constant for the last twenty years, filled by just 13.2 percent of the salaried population. [5] However, the length of these contracts has shrunk dramatically. Between 2000 and 2015, there was a 60 percent rise in employees taken on for less than one month, with around 70 percent of new starters on very short-term contracts by the end of that period. The practice of customary fixed-term posts (CDD d’usage) [6] that prevails in certain sectors, particularly the entertainment industry, is symptomatic of a wider trend: as much as 25 percent of these contracts are for less than one day, and 50 percent do not extend to a full working week. [7] Some consolation may be found in the knowledge that temporary jobs are sometimes made permanent when the economic outlook brightens, making precarious work a potential stepping stone to a more stable career. However, not everyone is this fortunate: there is an army of perennial “temps”—mainly men in late middle-age, foreign nationals often with few qualifications and large families to support—working in construction or manufacturing who never see an offer of permanent employment.

The pseudo-secure

6The pseudo-secure are employees who derive little or no satisfaction from their work. This induces a kind of social disqualification, a sense of being stuck in low-skilled, undervalued jobs where they feel only a weak affiliation with the company and society as a whole. These workers feel “left behind,” stranded by the wayside of history, with the threat of being pushed back further still. Today, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of all employees are in this situation: “There has never been a worse time to be a worker with only ordinary skills and abilities, because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary speed.” [8]

7A major French study by Serge Paugam, Le salarié de la précarité, [9] refers to a “disqualifying integration” experienced by 20 percent of the salaried population. Another 18 percent live in a state of “uncertain integration” (with job insecurity but a positive relationship to work), and yet another 20 percent endure “laborious integration” (unhappy with their work but not threatened with losing their job). That amounts to over 50 percent of all employees—hence the sense of breakdown in the corporate world, exacerbated by involuntary part-time working.

The former secure

8This group enjoys a notional degree of job security—as subcontractors and their employees, artisans, sole proprietors, freelancers, and “slashers” [10]—but are caught up in an economic dynamic ruled by precarity and flexibility. Many of them ultimately end up living hand to mouth. The explosion of subcontracting over the last twenty years has allowed companies to outsource a good deal of the risks of being in business by resorting to questionable contractual arrangements. It is not unusual to find that these workers are in fact former employees, “invited” to become independent contractors. This practice has become particularly widespread in construction, road transport, inland water shipping, and taxi services since the 1980s. [11]

9One might well detect a foreshadowing of the problems created by digital platforms, such as Uber, Deliveroo, and many others, when they mutate from intermediaries to de facto employers. Nor should we overlook the proliferation of task platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk, or the rise of “cloud working,” that turn work into a succession of ad hoc online assignments, each individually paid: translation, image analysis, surveys, and so on. A similar concept to crowdsourcing (mobilizing a global community of users to contribute to specific projects), this phenomenon is oddly reminiscent of the early industrial handicraft economy. In the space of thirty years, the labor market has evolved from a solar system where everyone had their allocated place to a nebula of hybrid roles fusing salaried work, contracting, and self-employment. Interestingly, this eruption of new legal statuses is proceeding in parallel to a deepening sense of the company as a relatively cohesive center of professional and personal life.

Conflicting desires: autonomy and cooperation

10Just to be absolutely clear: my intention is not to endorse a narrative of newfound corporate oneness, but rather to highlight an evident tendency toward renewed cohesion under the shattered surface of collective work. Even ten years ago, a study by the French Ministry of Labor revealed that “a majority of employees on short-term contracts say they feel just as much a part of their companies as those in permanent positions.” [12] Today, all nonpermanent workers are exposed to this dynamic.

11The growing desire for autonomy [13] is being satisfied as much by forms of sole proprietorship, freelancing, and wage portage as by traditional fixed-term and temporary contracts, consistent with the “artist” profile defined by Pierre-Michel Menger: “Strong commitment to one’s craft, significant freedom of action, an expectation or demand for flexibility, trade-offs between material gain and other, often nonmonetary, rewards.” [14]

12Generations Y and Z tend to reject traditional authority based on status, which is not the same as a competence-based authority founded on a mutual understanding that teams will follow their manager’s lead. [15] What matters to them is the ability to express their creativity within a legal status that strikes a happy medium between full independence and affiliation with the goals of a start-up or platform, giving them a kind of semi-autonomy. In theory, this arrangement ensures a baseline level of financial security, albeit with the obvious risk of sleepwalking into the veiled servitude of the Uber driver or Deliveroo courier, not too far removed from the exploitation suffered by textile and ironworkers in the nineteenth century.

The joy of work?

The results of a survey conducted by the youth organization Générations cobayes in 2016, published under the title Que du bonheur, [1] suggests that most economically active young people are in fact happy in their jobs: overall, 62 percent reported feeling “fairly” or “completely” satisfied at work. This is an astonishing finding, given the difficult conditions, intensifying precarity, and omnipresent insecurity in which they must build their careers. It may be partially attributable to the survey methodology: responses were collected through an online-only questionnaire, circulated mainly through social entrepreneurship networks (MakeSense, Ticket for Change) and student organizations (Animafac, Junior-Entreprises). Nonetheless, it remains an important piece of information. According to this survey, those who are happiest at work are also happiest overall. But is seeking happiness at work—and finding it—not a luxury reserved for the few? In this case, 58 percent of respondents saw work first and foremost as a source of personal development, rather than a means of earning a living. For 89 percent, money is not the primary motivation. A substantial majority feel that it is “fundamental” to find a professional path that aligns with their own values (80 percent), makes them feel that they are helping others (60 percent), and that they feel passionate about (75 percent). We can infer from this study that younger generations are primarily motivated by their desires for independence, autonomy, the acquisition of new skills, recognition, and positive relationships with colleagues. Remarkably, the pursuit of meaning and happiness at work takes precedence over the quest for a permanent contract, dismissed as “not important” or “not essential” by more than 60 percent of the panel. So, what are we to make of those who, like the Young Christian Workers movement, insist that a permanent contract can make or break a career? It would seem that each movement is talking to different groups. The Générations cobayes study certainly suggests that the indicators reported (happiness at work, desire for career mobility, prioritizing values over remuneration, etc.) are higher the more qualified the respondent.
  • [1]
    Survey administered to 54,000 French respondents aged between 18 and 35.
Louise Roblin (“Revue Projet”)

13We might speak of the emergence of a mixed model of collective work, bringing together—in the logic of networks and coworking—both salaried employees and a growing number of external collaborators, directly involved with the company’s project and even subsumed within its operational structure in a form of internalized subcontracting. The future belongs to the media lab or fab lab, spaces where workers can pool their knowledge and skills to create new tools and software. The ethos can be likened to that of a jazz orchestra, where musicians play both with and against the orchestra: a new metaphor for the uneasy synthesis between individual and collective. On the whole, this works fairly well—but a craving for autonomy can also be answered by hopping from one short-term contract to another, as highlighted some time ago by Catherine Faure-Guichard’s [16] innovative study that, at the risk of ruffling feathers, established that there really is such a thing as the “voluntary” temp. [17] Faure-Guichard identifies three main profiles: the “moonlighter” (intérim d’appoint), looking to supplement his or her regular income but not reliant on a second job to make ends meet (15 percent of the panel); the “career builder” (intérim tremplin professionnel), keen to diversify his or her experience with a view to securing a permanent contract (almost 25 percent); and the “professional nomad” (intérim par choix), well qualified, often further on in life, who deliberately seeks out temporary positions as a lifestyle choice that affords an agreeable balance between work and free time. This is by no means to downplay the struggles of the reluctant majority of temps, forced to traipse from one precarious post to another for want of other options.

14At the same time, following a phase of hyperindividualized working relationships, more and more managers are realizing how powerful cooperation can be in fostering a productive environment that generates real economic returns. This could ultimately be the catalyst for a shake-up of prevailing perceptions of the economic and social spheres, as advocated by Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her work demonstrating that strategic cooperation is more efficient than market forces or state intervention.

15We must be wary of settling into an overly optimistic view of reality, which could cause us to lose sight of the intransigent forces hastening the fragmentation of collective work and further entrenching the dominant forms of negative precarity. We can, however, be assured of one thing: a new horizon of professional clusters, more cohesive and more diverse, will have all the more chance of becoming a reality if we succeed in finding a new equilibrium between economy and society. That’s the big challenge!


  • [1]
    Generation Y refers to those born between 1980 and 1994, most of whom grew up watching television in a society where computers and mobile phones were becoming increasingly ubiquitous. The next cohort, born after 1994, is known as Generation Z. This hyperconnected generation has never known a world without the internet or social media [Editor’s note].
  • [2]
    Simon Beck and Joëlle Vidalenc, “Une photographie du marché du travail en 2016,” Insee première 1648 (2017): 2. This proportion remained stable from 2000 to 2012. That’s more than can be said for the public sector, which employed 898,000 contractors in 2010, 17.2 percent of its workforce.
  • [3]
    Cited by André Gorz, Métamorphoses du travail. Quête du sens (Paris: Galilée, 1988), 90 ff.
  • [4]
    French Senate, “Comptes rendus de la commission spéciale Croissance, activité et égalité des chances économiques,” March 11, 2015, Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material in this article are our own.
  • [5]
    Beck and Vidalenc, “Une photographie.”
  • [6]
    “The contrat d’extra or contrat d’usage is a particular type of short-term contract that allows employers in a strictly defined range of sectors to take on extra staff without delay. It can only be used to meet occasional, urgent needs for a specific and time-limited role.” Source: [Editor’s note].
  • [7]
    Étienne Marie and Vincent Jaouen, “Évaluation du contrat à durée déterminée dit d’usage,” Report by the Inspection générale des affaires sociales, December 2015.
  • [8]
    United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2015: Work for Human Development, 2015, 10.
  • [9]
    Serge Paugam, Le salarié de la précarité. Les nouvelles formes de l’intégration professionnelle (Paris: PUF, 2007 [2000]).
  • [10]
    A “slasher” combines multiple jobs in any capacity. The term refers to the forward slash (/) used to separate different activities.
  • [11]
    Hence the lively debate surrounding the false self-employed, which I referred to as salariés-artisans in a piece for Le Monde published on April 14, 1982. See Jacques Le Goff, Droit du travail et société, vol. 1, Les relations individuelles de travail (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2001), 142 ff.
  • [12]
    “Les contrats courts vus par les salariés,” Premières synthèses 12, no. 3 (2007).
  • [13]
    Olivier Galland and Bernard Roudet (eds.), Les jeunes Européens et leurs valeurs. Europe occidentale, Europe centrale et orientale (Paris: La Découverte, 2005).
  • [14]
    Pierre-Michel Menger, Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur. Métamorphoses du capitalisme (Paris: Seuil, 2003), 8.
  • [15]
    See Alain Mergier, “Les jeunes et l’autorité. Des attentes spécifiques,” Cadres-CFDT 440–441 (2010).
  • [16]
    Catherine Faure-Guichard, L’emploi intérimaire. Trajectoires et identités (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2000).
  • [17]
    In response to the question “Are you working in a temporary role by choice?” 35 percent of temporary workers (RDET variable) said “yes” (yearly average). Source: Insee/Dares employment survey.
Jacques Le Goff
A labor inspector in the 1980s, Jacques Le Goff is emeritus professor of public law at the University of Western Brittany in Brest. He is the author of Du silence à la parole: Une histoire du droit du travail des années 1830 à nos jours (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2004).
Uploaded on on 09/03/2022
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