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Social Inequality in the Descent Society

by Oliver Nachtwey and Gerrit Bartels Tuesday, Jun. 28, 2016 at 4:39 AM

The elevator effect is not true any more. This changed from the 1990s. People no longer move up together. A society of descent, precariousness and polarization has come ou9t of the society of social ascent. Ascents and descents have a collective and an individual dimension.


A society of descent, precariousness and polarization has come out of the society of social ascent. How could this happen?

By Oliver Nachtwey

[This article published on 6/15/2016 is translated from the German on the Internet, As in a department store, some are high and the others are down.]

Social inequality has increased. This is often described with the picture of a widening gulf between poor and rich. However the social gulf between the richest and the poorest is not our central problem. In that perspective, only the income- or wealth differences between top and bottom are measured. The system of social positions can normalize the significance of social inequality.

In the 1970s the philosopher John Rawls developed a theory of justice that contained a liberal measure of position: the so-called difference principle. In a short form, it says social inequalities are legitimate when they “bring the greatest possible advantage to the least favored.”

With this sentence, Rawls reflected the social development of western market economies. Enormous social inequalities between the poorest and the richest continued but poverty was reduced. Social ascent was not a foreign word any more for workers. Incomes rose as well as education chances, free time and consumption. Ulrich Beck described this process as an elevator effect.

All social classes from employees to property owners were together in the lift and moved up together. The inequalities remained but played a lesser social role when everyone prospered. In this logic, the disparity between up and down could continue to diverge as long as the lower areas of society were also better off. The real problem of social inequality begins here.


Beck’s diagnosis was correct up to the end of the 1980s. This changed from the 1990s. The elevator effect is not true any more. People no longer move up together. A society of descent, precariousness and polarization has come out of the society of social ascent. The metaphor of the escalator can be used here since it describes this process very graphically. Ascents and descents have a collective and an individual dimension.

In Beck’s elevator, everyone moved up together. On the escalator, in contrast, the distances between individuals can change according to which step they are on and whether they are riding down or up. Spatially this can be imagined as in a department store. Some well-to-do people have already reached the next floor on the escalator where they can look back or rise to the next floor and ride up again.

However the direction of the escalator changes for most of those who don’t reach the next floor. While it went up for a long time, people now travel downward. This process developed insidiously. For a long while, individual declines or falls were not a mass phenomenon but now they are increasing.


Vertical mobility, an indicator for the fulfillment of modern market economies, can be made clear without the American narrative of the marvelous ascent of the dishwasher to millionaire, from bottom to top. The class structures of the past can be left behind and the feudal social closures broken. Everyone should be able to rise – even if everyone cannot rise.

Firstly, the question of professional or vocational mobility should be considered, individual ascents out of their class position or out of the class position of their parents. Children of farmers or workers can become mid-level employees or academics. Industrial change and education expansion contain a built-in promotion driver or accelerator. On account of the increased services, unskilled agricultural laborer jobs increased greatly in the last years so industrial change alone is a permanent driver of ascent.

Despite this limitation, the studies on the change of occupational mobility are revealing. The picture is contradictory. First, the diagnosis of those who describe an increasing social inequality as an increase in distance is contradicted. Vocational mobility has even increased. Among West German men, the relation of ascending to descending has slightly worsened but on balance is positive. The crucial developments occur at the very top and the very bottom in the vocational hierarchy. Here social mobility decreases and hereditary transmission rises.


Upward mobility has increased for women in West Germany and reflects their improved equal opportunities in society. In the West, women from the upper classes successfully pass on their social positions to their daughters. Women from the worker sector often rise disproportionately. Their rates of ascent approach the rates of men who previously had a higher mobility.

In East Germany, the ascents of both men and women climbed and now ascents and descents nearly balance each other. Considering the immanent trend to a more qualified vocational structure, this is a critical development. It points to a downward trend in East Germany and a permanent uncoupling of the new from the old German states. When East Germany is ignored, there are no reasons to speak of a descent society. Ultimately there are still more rising than descending persons.


What does vocational social ascent mean today? In mobility analyses, qualification and occupation are in the foreground, not working conditions. When the son of a skilled worker becomes a teacher or the daughter of a business clerk becomes a lawyer, both rise compared to their parents according to the conventional way of looking at things. Their vocations require a better training and they have more social prestige and are more socially protected but don’t automatically earn more money than their parents.

Here are two examples of highly trained persons. A teacher can be hired for a term and must register unemployed in the summer vacations since many German states rely on a growing host of flexible teachers who are no longer given the rank of a civil servant. Even as a lawyer, one doesn’t automatically arrive in a relative prosperity as was early true.

This occupational group is divided in employees in big law offices or entrepreneurial experts who still earn enormous money and have great social prestige and a growing band of precarious independent persons who cannot get a foothold on the over-crowded market. Like many other vocational groups, they are precariously employed despite high training and occupational ascent.


In a collective perspective, the escalator goes down for employees. The main cause for the transition to the descent society lies in the shockwaves of working conditions.

A condition is called precarious when it is unstable, uncertain, risky and revocable. In the modern social age, social integration and stability are grounded on work. Protection from unlawful termination and social security are expressions of so-called normal working conditions. In the 1960s, these employment conditions constituted almost 90% of all jobs. In the meantime, this has changed markedly.

In 1991, 79% of all employees were employed in normal working conditions. In 2014, they were only 68.3%. 20.9% of paid workers were employed atypically in 2014, worked either in limited or minor working relations, part-time or as subcontracted workers. More than half of the 11% independents were so-called solo-independents.


Precarious working conditions are not evenly distributed over all groups but concentrate among the low-qualified. The highly trained also need more and more time until they achieve a socially secured vocational career. As a rule of thumb, one could say: the younger and the less qualified, the greater the likelihood of atypical employment.

For older, vocationally established employees, the danger of preciousness is considerably less than with the younger. For them, the first occupational years are more unstable; they keep their first job more seldomly. The average employment duration for young persons decreased 22% since the middle of the 1970s. Less qualified persons must expect to soon temporarily lose their job.


The gainful life altogether has lost its former structure; careers and vocational paths have become intermittent. The traditional professional course – entering a profession in the young years and leaving the same firm at the end of gainful life to retire – becomes a relic of past times that is rarer and rarer.

The increasing numbers of those who experience ruptures in their gainful biographies are literally socially wounded. They fall into the expanding “intermediate zone” and shuttle between paid work and unemployment. While employed most of the time, their jobs rarely last.

Nothing seems certain any more – occupation, income and prestige. Like an abandoned ship on the high seas, many employees totter through gainful life. They are handed over to external powers and can no longer steer themselves. This to-and-fro leads to an increased “status inconsistency” in which the positions that a person takes in different social dimensions rapidly fall to pieces.


The escalator effect appears very clearly on the plane of real net income. Income was increasing as a trend up to the beginning of the 1990s. At the start of this decade, wage development reached its peak and then ultimately capsized. Since 1993, the average real incomes have fallen for nearly a quarter of a century. This trend seems to have first stopped in the last six years.

The wage spread in the businesses and between the branches has grown. So the standard earnings in financial management or in the energy sector are twice as high as in the catering trade or subcontracted work generally. The salary difference between the simple person who deals with exports and managerial employees or executives has also grown in the businesses.

The case of average net real earnings is very striking because productivity in Germany in the same time period has continuously increased – with the exception of a collapse owing to the economic crisis. The year 1975 is particularly interesting in this connection. Up to the middle of the 1970s, real income and productivity developed parallel.


With the beginning of the long downswing of the world economy, productivity and income began to diverge. At that time businesses relied on labor-saving machines to a great extent for the first time. Then the two curves completely uncoupled since the 1990s. Real wages fell while productivity and value creation (profit) soared. Real wages collapsed above all where there were no collective wage agreements any more. Altogether 20% to 25% of all jobs on the German labor market are low wage jobs where incomes are hardly enough for life.

Precarity and descent are not all-pervasive. There are still relatively stable areas on the labor market. When employees are first hired as regular personnel in normal working conditions, they usually create those conditions on the internal labor market of their firms. There they can expect a high job security, good ascent possibilities and a good income in the case of high qualifications.


They are relatively uncoupled by the business organization from outward developments like rising unemployment. The opposite way is taken on the external labor markets of businesses – among marginal personnel with lesser qualifications. Here the insecurity is high and the income low.

The fact that precarious employees exist in many businesses has great effects because others in secure conditions see this. Contrary to their formal security, they feel on call. Personnel are then divided in permanent employees who understand their social security as a privilege and precarious workers who are nearly all ready to escape their insecurity.


Normative insecurities grow in a society that still sees itself as an ascent society where life in “reality” is no longer looking up. Many probably know the experience from their childhood of running up a down escalator. That seldom worked. In the descent society, many people constantly see themselves on a down escalator. They have to run up to keep their position.

On the other hand, those who actually experience a descent blame themselves for their personal failure. Some ritually hold fast to the ascent orientation even if they inwardly long abandoned this perspective. Fears of descent and status battles around distribution of prosperity arise among those not descending.


For oneself, one radicalizes the virtues of educational ambition and ascent orientation. Secondary virtues like sense of duty and discipline return in the liberal milieu. The whole conduct of life serves the project of maintaining status.

Now and then status anxieties lead to economistic interpretations, negative classification and the devaluation of weaker groups, whether refugees or long-term unemployed. Where a certain liberality once prevailed, it now gives way to nebulous notions about morality, culture and lifestyle. Therefore ascent processes are a threat for the democratic community.

Oliver Nachtwey’s new 2016 book is titled “The Descent Society. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age” from Suhrkamp. He is a fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.


Germany as a Descent Society

From the Ascent- and Risk Society to a Descent Society

Oliver Nachtwey analyzes the labor market and the stability of the social peace in Germany

By Gerrit Bartels

[This article published on 6/13/2016 is translated from the German on the Internet, In the past, the elevator effect lifted everyone. Today people go downwards on many elevators.

A few days ago the German Labor Office reported some good news. Its head Frank-Jurgen Weise announced 100,000 fewer unemployed for May 2016 compared with 2015 and a 0.3% decline of the unemployment rate to 6%. “The labor market is developing positively,” he summarized.

Germany is running in the direction of full employment – despite the unending financial- and economic crises in Europe and despite high unemployment in countries like Spain and Greece.

Therefore the study titled “The Descent Society” by the Frankfurt sociologist and economist Oliver Nachtwey is disconcerting. “A society of descent, precariousness and polarization has emerged out of the society of ascent and growth.”

That is a drastic and alarmist diagnosis. Someone seems to profile himself as a doomsayer (Kassandrarufer). However Nachtwey has evidence for this on the labor market. Its structure has completely changed in the last decades, away from agriculture, forestry and the classical production industry to the service industry where three-quarters of all employees make their living… An industrial service society has arisen in which the logic of industrial production and the logic of services merge together.”


There is an increasing polarization of the occupational structure with more highly qualified on one side and more less qualified on the other side with corresponding jobs in catering, call-centers, discounters, cleaning and security firms. More and more people have limited work contracts or are hired by subcontracting firms and don’t have the same rights and securities as permanent employees. Only two-thirds of all employees in Germany are in so-called normal working conditions, Nachtwey says.

Thus the decline in unemployment numbers is based on the creation of short-term and low wage jobs. Nachtwey speaks of a “precarious paid work society” where the understanding of democracy and relating with citizenship rights changes, not only the labor market. This leads “to a new class society” with an upper class that lives in its own world, an upper middle class that “co-produces social closures and cultural distinctions” and the great multitude of “anxious, threatened or actually falling middle classes and the lower class with its precarious jobs and nearly non-existent chances of escaping them.

Nachtwey’s book is more than a study of the modern work society in Germany. In five chapters, the 41-year old sociologist describes the “modern social age,” the time of ascent and growth of the 1950s and 1960s, the regressive present modern age and its descent culture to the many novel forms of protest involving social themes and democratic polarization (Occupy, Stuttgart 21) and exclusions downward and outward (Pegida!).

One of Nachtwey’s most important sources is the sociologist Ulrich Beck who inspired the formulation “descent society” and who died on January 1, 2015. Beck’s “Risk Society” is the blueprint since it followed the first serious economic crisis in the 1970s. To the “collective elevator effect” diagnosed by Beck that brings everyone to the top, Nachtwey opposes the elevator bringing people up and down.

In addition, Beck’s concept of the “second modern age” and “reflexive modernization” frequently appears. Relying on the critical theory of Adorno/ Horkheimer, Nachtwey construes our present as a “regressive modern age.” In this, progress also includes backward steps “mostly affecting the lower classes.” The symptoms of this regressive modern age can appear on other social fields, in parliamentary democracy (“the market citizen is basically a customer with rights, not a citizen any more”) or in the education system where the origin and wealth of the parents plays a great role again and diligence alone does not automatically assure careers.


Nachtwey tries to coin terms that could become keywords of the debate. He holds to the numbers and facts he uncovered in his field research in the auto industry. He moves in the practical and theoretical realms of the economy, sociology and psychology. He knows there are some contradictions in his diagnoses, that there are still more participants than refusers in Germany and great social stability can be expected in the upper middle classes. “Ulrich Beck assumed social risks would democratize across social borders. Social risk rises asymmetrically – not democratically. The lower one stands in the social hierarchy, the greater the risk of skidding or staying down.

Nachtwey is first vague at the end when he analyzes the different forms of rebellion against the new conditions. The talk was of a “democratic class conflict” and “political estrangement in post-democracy.” Here the enraged Stuttgart citizens, the nurses and teachers more concerned with recognition than with money and the Occupy movement. There Pegida and AfD together with their social exclusions andante-democratic effects. Protest in post-democracy has become unclear, blind, situationist and often hard to comprehend. Protest is as differentiated as the society itself. Germany is far removed from a strike culture as in France. However Nachtwey is sure “we will experience an increase in social conflicts in the next decade in Germany.”

Nachtwey is derided for not naming any alternatives or ways out of the descent society. Still he analyzes the present development very precisely. The impression that nothing can happen to Germany on its island of the economically blessed is deceiving.

Oliver Nachtwey. Der Abstieggesellschaft. On Rebellion in the Regressive Modern Age, Suhrkamp, Berlin 2016, 264 pages, 18 E.

Comment J.K.: “The decline in unemployment numbers is based… on the creation of short-term and low-wage jobs.” This should be remembered whenever there is talk of the jobs miracle in Germany. Nachtwey passes a scathing judgment on the social conditions in Germany and decries Merkel’s mantra “everyone prospers” as a lie. This must be respected again and again. The SPD that gives free rein to the neoliberal rollback bears responsibility for this development.

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