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Vulnerability is most visible during turning points and times of transition

Two recently defended theses at the University of Lausanne in the framework of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES, use data from the Swiss Household Panel to observe the development of critical events, such as becoming an adult, the birth of a child or a spell of unemployment. The research studies of Florence Rossignon and Matteo Antonini use these events to highlight the interaction between individual characteristics and the structural context, which can only really be revealed in a quantitative way by longitudinal tracking over time, thanks to innovative methods. In doing so, these studies present some notable surprises.

"The road to adulthood is long and winding, and it does not come to an end until the late twenties." This phrase of Florence Rossignon on page 54 of her thesis, while rooted in scientific observation, is poetic in many ways. Written by a young PhD candidate, it can also be understood as a metaphor for her own metamorphosis, on reaching the culmination of four years of research. Her thesis, which she defended on 22 August 2017, is the very first to use the “LIVES Cohort” oversampling data from young people born between 1988 and 1997, of whom three quarters are second-generation immigrants. The data comes from the third sample of the Swiss Household Panel, an annual questionnaire conducted since 2013 by FORS, the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences, in collaboration with the NCCR LIVES.

Florence Rossignon was interested in two events marking the transition to adulthood: leaving home and entering the job market. Combining sequence analysis and event history analysis for the first time, two diametrically different methods up till now, her thesis particularly shows that, at every age studied, young people whose parents are separated show a greater probability of leaving the family home than those whose parents are still together.

Well-integrated second generation from former Yugoslavia

With regard to professional integration, Florence Rossignon highlights significant differences coinciding with ethnic origin, even when those concerned were entirely educated in Switzerland. Second generation migrants from Southern Europe make up the highest percentage of those working in skilled manual trades. More surprisingly, young people originally from the Balkans and Turkey are characterised by a greater presence in skilled white-collar jobs following on from an apprenticeship. Compared to young people with two Swiss parents, the second generation from these countries are also less likely to earn their living doing an unskilled job. Young people who have the greatest difficulty in finding work are those whose families originally came from continents other than Europe.

An especially original part of Florence Rossignon's thesis is her study of resident permits. She succeeds in showing that young people who benefitted from temporary or short-term permits when they entered the country, are more likely than the Swiss, all other things being equal, to reach more prestigious socio-professional positions, as self-employed people for instance. According to the researcher, these circumstances could be explained by the families having higher educational and professional aspirations.

Unemployment and its consequences

The self-employed category would appear to be an interesting avenue to pursue for social sciences research. It is also present in Matteo Antonini's thesis, who took his viva on 28 August 2017. He too used data from the Swiss Household Panel, but included older population samples for all ages associated with surveys started in 1999 and 2004. Part of his research addressed the paths followed by people who had experienced one or more periods of unemployment, with the idea of examining their circumstances four years after losing their jobs.

Matteo Antonini compared two groups: people who were unemployed at one point and those who did not experience unemployment. His data shows that in the unemployed group, the self-employed category increases significantly after a period of unemployment, rising from 1.6% to 6.1%. In the control group consisting of people who had not experienced unemployment, the share of self-employed people remains reasonably stable or even decreases, dropping from 8.3% to 7.9% four years later.

This researcher also used sequence analysis, being especially interested in people affected most seriously by unemployment in the medium to long term, either because they were still unemployed at the end of four years, or because they had to resort to downgrading or even because their employment history was characterised by recurring instability. Foreigners and older people are particularly affected by long-term unemployment. Women are especially affected by downgrading, accepting jobs below their level of qualifications which allow them to combine work and family life. Finally, both skilled and unskilled blue-collar workers are the people who struggle the most in finding a secure job.

Apart from these particularly vulnerable categories, Matteo Antonini observed that a significant number of highly qualified people are also affected by long-term unemployment and an insecure working life, perhaps because they are unwilling to accept just any sort of job and furthermore because they have the economic and social resources to cope with the situation for a relatively long time, according to Matteo Antonini. Nevertheless, he sees this phenomenon as a warning which should not be ignored by the Swiss education and social systems.

Women's careers and maternity benefits

The PhD candidate likewise devoted a significant section of his thesis to another turning point, the birth of a child. Working together with Ashley Pullman, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, he looked into the effect that new maternity benefits had on professional careers and found mixed results regarding the importance of this reform for women's careers in Switzerland. In some cases, women have actually lost some rights after the 2005 introduction of 16 weeks of compulsory leave on 70% pay, compared to what certain collective agreements used to provide. In any event, the new law has not increased the share of women who work full-time. Matteo Antonini shows that most women are inclined to reduce their working hours, sometimes even before the birth of a child.

The researcher laments that "the reform was not strong enough to overcome the social inertia that maintains a certain structure of individual work sequences." If one looks at this analysis together with the thesis mentioned above, Switzerland does not appear to have improved much: one of Florence Rossignon's observations is that second generation young people who have gained citizenship have not seen their professional path made any easier for all that: individuals who become Swiss still have fewer chances of occupying a higher position than those who are born Swiss. They may have higher expectations and would therefore enter into competition with nationals who have a more substantial social capital, the researcher suggests. In both cases, the research of the LIVES PhD graduates reveals the tension that exists between the social structure and individual strategies.

>> Florence Rossignon (2017). Transition to adulthood for vulnerable populations in Switzerland: When past matters. Under the supervision of Jacques-Antoine Gauthier and Jean-Marie Le Goff. University of Lausanne.

>> Matteo Antonini (2017). The impact of critical events on work trajectories. Under the supervision of Felix Bühlmann. University of Lausanne.