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LIVES Award for early scholars is granted to a paper on school to work transitions

The winner of the "LIVES Best Paper Award for Early Scholars" is Dr. Christian Brzinsky-Fay from WZB Berlin. He received a prize of 2000 Euros on October 11, 2017 at the opening of the annual conference of the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies (SLLS) in Stirling. His article, published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, shows that vocational education and training (VET) systems, common in Germany and Switzerland, facilitate occupational attainments across cohorts under different labour market conditions. However, gender inequalities come to light.

Christian Brzinsky-Fay’s research addresses school to work transitions (STWT) of five cohorts of German residents born between 1948 and 1977. He notably questions non-linear transitions, when there is no direct entry into the labour market after education or several different activity statuses before occupation. Born in 1972, he went back to university when he was 25 years old and obtained his PhD at age 39. Is there a relationship between his own life course and his research topic?

Absolutely, he confirms: “The time between my Abitur (high school degree) and age 25 was indeed filled by a couple of different 'activity statuses', such as freelance work (private tutor, telephone interviewing), studying (trial run: chemistry, biology), company work (Siemens). Despite its lack of sustainability and drifting character, this period was for me a very important time, because it allowed me to learn a lot of informal qualifications and soft skills. In this respect, I think that my interest in STWT is partly a result of my own experiences.”

His personal trajectory allowed him to contest for the LIVES Best Paper Award for Early Scholars, aimed at researchers who received their doctoral degree less than seven years ago. 55 articles, originating from 15 countries, were submitted for this second edition of the award, only two by LIVES members or former members, in what happened to be a very tight competition. Christian Brzinsky-Fay’s finally won the best scores for the topicality of his research in the life course perspective and its high scientific relevance, as well as for his mastery of methods.

Educational expansion

Using data from the German National Education Panel Study's adult survey (NEPS) and the innovative method of sequence analysis, Christian Brzinsky-Fay looks at entries into the job market not as isolated events, but as patterns of trajectories. He observes differences inter and intra cohorts, all marked by the educational expansion that followed World War II, and subject to varying macroeconomic conditions. This approach allows him to test whether the VET system, usually considered as leading to less unemployment for young adults, is correlated to less instability and better professional integration at any period, even during the less favourable ones in terms of job prospects.

Results show that the proportion of young people experiencing smooth transition patterns increased over the cohorts, largely due to the rising attendance of secondary school before apprenticeship. Although they were the largest and met the poorest labour market conditions at the end of compulsory schooling, the 1965 and 1970 cohorts showed the lowest rate of non-linear school to work transitions. The instability cluster, while decreasing, was however marked by more activity statuses, indicating a higher degree of non-linearity among the “unstable” minority.  All in all, 13% of men and 25% of women were concerned by a high number of activity statuses across all the cohorts, 44% of them holders of a high school diploma.

Reduced upward mobility for women

One originality of Christian Brzinsky-Fay’s paper is to consider not only the first entry into the job market, but the situation of all individuals at age 30. This enables him to see whether the different types of trajectories have a sustainable repercussion on the job situation, once what is considered as the regular age of adulthood is reached. The finding is that men nowadays succeed in compensating the usually longer duration of their education and display important rates of upward mobility: for the youngest cohorts, there is in fact no postponement of the male occupational and socioeconomic attainments compared to the 1950 cohort. For highly educated women, however, once entered into regular adulthood, the situation is far less favourable, as they have the higher risk of not reaching positions which they would deserve according to their degree level. Upward mobility between first occupation and age 30 is much flatter for women across all cohorts.

Christian Brzinsky-Fay concludes by calling for “greater attention to gender differences”. His analysis nevertheless shows clearly “the merit of vocationally oriented upper secondary school systems”. He may yet be proud of having pursued his own education further. Our sincere congratulations for his award on such an important topic of life course studies!

>> Brzinsky-Fay, Christian & Solga, Heike (2016): Compressed, Postponed, or Disadvantaged? School-to-Work-Transition Patterns and Early Occupational Attainment in West GermanyResearch in Social Stratification and Mobility, Vol. 46, Part A, pp. 21-36.