The Risk of Poverty from Work
At first glance, cleaners, freelancers, care workers and sales staff have little in common, but for all of them it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from their work. Julia Friedrichs portrays people who are struggling to survive. She asks about the causes of the social upheavals – and calls for a new class consciousness.
By Marit Borcherding
There was a lot of clapping on balconies and at open windows during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020: for nurses, for supermarket cashiers and parcel delivery workers. But what was the effect of these media-hyped acts? The people applauding felt good about themselves, while the aforementioned occupational groups, described as essential workers, are still working long, hard hours today without any prospects of adequate pay.
StocktakingThe coronavirus pandemic and the extreme situations it caused have only made something overly clear and public that has long been a social fact in this country: “Since 2010, the inequality of annual incomes in Germany has been increasing again. The wages and salaries of the wealthiest 10 percent are rising in particular. Over the last three decades the poorest third has ... profited little from growth in Germany or even lost out. Nevertheless ... taxes were lowered for the upper third of incomes, and raised significantly for the lower half.” In her book Working Class, the multi-award-winning journalist Julia Friedrichs has impressively worked out how the soberly presented statistical findings affect the lives of this lower half on a daily basis. Her interviews conducted over a long period of time – for example with Said, the underground cleaner; with Alexandra, the freelance music teacher; with Rüdiger, the ex-department store employee – all too forcefully confirm the subtitle of this book: Why we need work we can live off.
INEQUALITYWhy it’s become so much more difficult to find employment that makes a good life possible is obvious to Julia Friedrichs. She uses various sources and forms of presentation – results from scholarly studies, analyses, interviews with experts and those “affected” as well as essay-like reflections to impressively and comprehensibly reveal the causes for the social upheaval since the 2000s: rising social security contributions, exploding rents, an increase in temporary jobs, outsourcing, falling wages, the lack of promise of advancement, no possibility to save money let alone build assets.
In contrast – and this is also the focus of the journalist’s analysis – there is a class of well-situated people who, in the 1970s and 1980s of “old West Germany,” entered professional careers, something that was still seamlessly possible at that time, as well as an increasing number of people who are and remain affluent, if not rich, thanks to rising returns on capital. These fortunes will continue to rise because capital tends not to be touched, even in times of crisis, while the state finances itself primarily through (ever higher) taxes on labour and consumption. And, “So far, every government prefers to sacrifice the pension rights of the younger generation instead of forcing the wealthy among the older generation to exercise moderation.”
AWARENESS RAISINGJulia Friedrichs goes beyond a mere stocktaking to formulate the necessity to fight for better conditions not only as an affected individual alone and separate from other marginalised groups, but to make a joint effort. However, according to Friedrichs in an interview with Freitag, this requires a unifying awareness from which political power can grow, not only in election years. This takes us back to the title of the book: “Working Class” is meant to be understood as a programme: “My use of the term “working class,” which is also less used in English-speaking countries, follows the US economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who used it to describe people who have to live from their work alone. In Germany, this affects 50 percent of the population. ... The risk-producing changes in the labour market ... are something that basically connects everyone, from the unskilled to the best-educated. ... It would therefore also be possible to build a mutual awareness, the more we talk about things and point out the connecting mechanisms.”
Thus strengthened, it would be possible to work towards options that could at least initiate a reversal of the trend: Julia Friedrichs mentions, for example, raising the minimum wage, setting up a sovereign wealth fund or the model of a social inheritance. This would undoubtedly serve the cleaner Said more sustainably than the 20-euro voucher he received as a “bonus” for his work during the pandemic.
Julia Friedrichs: Working Class. Warum wir Arbeit brauchen, von der wir leben können
Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 2021, 320 p.