Review Society

The Reality of Social Demotion

About: C. Peugny, Le Déclassement, Grasset.

by Vincent Chabault , 23 May 2011

Social demotion is a concept which pervades public debate: it evokes the feeling of anxiety expressed by individuals, but it also represents a social and statistical reality which is experienced by members of the different age cohorts born since the beginning of the 1960s.

Reviewed: Camille Peugny, Le Déclassement, Paris, Grasset, coll. « Mondes vécus », 2009, 178 p.

Louis Chauvel’s work Les Classes moyennes à la dérive [The middle classes adrift] came out in the autumn of 2006 and highlighted the fact that the class issue was no longer a peripheral matter concerning a side-lined, disaffected under-class, but was at the very heart of society and affected a section of the employed middle classes. [1] The destabilisation of the middle classes (which were previously thought to be protected from the difficulties experienced by the working classes) is demonstrated by a number of indicators, such as the stagnation of middle-incomes, increasingly precarious jobs, the social demotion of young people with university qualifications, and the processes of downward social mobility. Camille Peugny’s book, which is taken from a sociology thesis he wrote in 2007, [2] examines one of these indicators in depth: social demotion between the generations. For individuals, social demotion means that they end up with a social status which is lower than that of their parents – social status here is measured by occupational group. Social demotion is a concept which pervades public debate: it evokes the feeling of anxiety expressed by individuals, but it also – and this is the focus of the book – represents a social and statistical reality which is experienced by members of the different age cohorts born since the 1960s. But Peugny’s argument doesn’t stop there. Chapter 2 looks at how the lives of individuals have been affected by downward social mobility. And Chapter 3 examines the political implications of social demotion, describing how it has shaped a certain number of attitudes and representations.

Social Demotion as a Social Pattern

In the first chapter, Peugny gives a brief account of what we could call a situation reversal. During the thirty year boom period post-World War II, the different age cohorts (especially those born between 1944 and 1948) had very good prospects. [3] A post-industrial society then ensued, in which several fundamental changes – in a different economic context – transformed the structure of French society. Sociological work changes tone at this point. After the theory of the rise of the middle classes, studies appeared on social inequalities and the consequences of economic changes. The introduction of the notion of generations in quantitative sociology showed up the differences in social situations between, for example, people who were 30 in 1968 and people who were 30 in 1998. [4]

Following on from this work, Peugny describes the general decline in prospects of social mobility for people born in the 1960s. He uses a standard research method: occupation is used as the sole factor to measure social mobility. [5] An individual’s occupation is compared with his/her father’s occupation, and sometimes his/her mother’s. Overall, it is increasingly less common for people to move up a social class. The proportion of “mobile” individuals who have been demoted down a class is growing. In terms of social mobility, the situation is worse for women than men: in 2003 for example, out of the children of senior managers aged 30-45, 48% of men held the same position as their father in comparison with 33% of women (p. 36). Given these results, the explanation that starting a career later means being promoted at a later stage does not stand up. Recent studies have shown that in fact, the timing of the beginning of a career has a real impact on professional career paths, as promotions for employees born after the 1950s are increasingly rare. People from poor backgrounds (people in low-skilled jobs, employees) are increasingly unlikely to experience upward social mobility. In other words, the prospects of children born into the working classes – measured at age 40 – have decreased: more people moved up a class in the 1980s than post-2000. The numbers of people moving down from the upper and middle classes have increased significantly. For the generations born between 1944 and 1948, 14% of the sons of senior managers worked as supervisors (employees or in low-skilled jobs), while for generations born at the beginning of the 1960s this proportion is close to 25%. For the daughters of senior managers this proportion has increased from 22% for the generations born between 1944 and 1948, to 34% for the age cohorts born in 1964-1968. Peugny underlines one of the key results of the survey: “In France post-2000, at age 40, one out of four sons of senior managers and one out of three daughters of senior managers were employees or had low-skilled jobs (p. 44-45).

By examining people’s occupation and level of education, Camille Peugny shows that qualifications are still the best form of protection against the risk of social demotion. Specifically, in the upper classes, it is the qualified children of qualified parents who are protected from social demotion: “Inheriting a place in society seems to have been replaced by a tendency to inherit educational capital” (p. 55). It is especially from the third year of university onwards that qualifications shield against social demotion. People who do not have this level of education tend to experience both social and educational demotion. [6] Continuing with an analysis on changing levels of education, two other results from the survey shed light on how French society’s relationship with education has changed. Although “quantitative” democratisation has occurred given educational policy, the extent to which qualifications have an impact on obtaining a particular social status tends to decrease as time goes on. In contrast to the meritocratic republican ideal of the educational process, it is in fact ancestry which increasingly plays a role in the social position people attain. Even though the generations born since the 1960s are significantly more qualified than their parents, declining prospects of stability and social mobility mean that many people experience social demotion.

Experiencing Social Demotion

The second chapter is based solely on interviews with people who have experienced downward social mobility, and describes two different types of experience of social demotion. After an overview of the academic literature on how social mobility affects people’s mental health and stability, [7] Camille Peugny highlights the problems in recording the subjective experiences of people who have moved down a class, which demonstrates the extent to which responsibility has been transferred to the individual in modern society. The first type of experience leads to a generational identity in which people have a strong feeling of belonging to a stratum of society which is inferior to that of their parents. These forty year olds feel very hard done by: after being well-educated – sometimes to university level – their qualifications have not allowed them to obtain the same social status as their parents, who had achieved their qualifications through non-educational routes. One 39 year old woman’s father is a manager in the public sector. She explains: “I’ve ended up working as a receptionist… I mean honestly, bac + 2 [French equivalent of A-levels plus 2 years of further study] just to answer the phone, it’s crazy when you think about it… My dad’s only got the BEPC [French equivalent of GCSEs] and he manages a team!” After this critical attitude, the second type of experience involves people from privileged backgrounds, who had a difficult time at school and have well-qualified parents with managerial jobs. Here, social demotion is unexpected and experienced as a personal failure. While people with the first type of experience have a critical attitude, people with the second type of experience simply withdraw from the situation.

The Effects of Social Demotion on Political Attitudes and Discourse

The impact of social demotion on political attitudes is examined in the third and final chapter, using the results of surveys (three different waves between April and June 2002). The object is to analyse recent political events in the light of the increase in downward social mobility. Two lines of enquiry are used: one relates to issues of ethnocentrism and authoritarianism, the other involves economic and social issues. The political discourse of people who have experienced downward social mobility emphasises the need to return to traditional values and is also racist, highlighting the vast number of immigrants who are considered to be responsible for France’s economic and social problems post-2000. As regards economic and social issues, people who have experienced downward social mobility reject liberalism categorically. They are keen on the protection and the regulation provided by the state, but they are less concerned about the need to strive to reduce inequalities (p. 131). A need for protection is coupled with a concern to set themselves apart from the lower echelons of society. The unemployed might be seen as victims of globalisation, but they are also seen as receiving handouts from the state. The emphasis is on individuals’ willpower and determination (p. 140).

Does this specific discourse translate into a vote for a particular party? The answer to this question is complex. Data from 2002 is used, as unfortunately the data from 2007 does not include information on the voters’ parents’ occupation. People who have moved down a class do not support the left as strongly as “managers who have remained in the same class”, “people who have moved up a class”, and “employees and people in low-skilled jobs who have remained in the same class”, and are more likely than these groups to support the far right (the National Front or the National Republican Movement). Although the proportion is low (9.5 %), the Le Pen and Mégret movements still attract more people who have experienced downward social mobility than people who have remained in the same class or people who have moved up a class. This trend is certainly not large-scale or automatic, but as Peugny says: “Their political landscape is a unique patchwork of their own interpretation of their memories, which in terms of political allegiance seems to mean that people are more susceptible to the lure of the far right” (p. 152). The argument presented in this chapter is interesting, but it is a shame that nothing is said on the abstention of people who have experienced social demotion.

Camille Peugny’s book makes a valuable contribution to the study of social strata, as he builds up a statistical profile of social demotion and at the same time examines its social, ideological and political implications. Given the subject matter, perhaps a final point could have been made on the new composition of social groups in contemporary France. With growing numbers of people experiencing social demotion, Peugny’s book actually describes the circumstances which have produced new social strata: social strata made up of people whose socio-economic status excludes them from the middle classes, but whose educational and cultural background clearly differentiates them from the working classes [8].

First published in Translated from French by Rebecca Atkinson.

by Vincent Chabault, 23 May 2011

To quote this article :

Vincent Chabault, « The Reality of Social Demotion », Books and Ideas , 23 May 2011. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1L. Chauvel, Les Classes moyennes à la dérive [The middle classes adrift], Paris, Seuil, in La République des idées, 2006.

[2C. Peugny, La Mobilité sociale descendante. L’épreuve du déclassement [Downward social mobility. The experience of social demotion], thesis for Phd in sociology, IEP Paris, 2007, 421 pages.

[3These collectively good prospects were: strong upward social mobility, increasing incomes, better social welfare and almost double the number of students gaining the French baccalauréat without educational qualifications becoming devalued. L. Chauvel, Le Destin des générations. Structure sociale et cohortes en France au XXe siècle [The destiny of generations: social structure and cohorts in France in the 20th century], Paris, PUF, in Le lien social, 2002 (1998), pp. 49-95.

[4C. Baudelot, R. Establet, Avoir trente ans en 1968 et 1998 [Being thirty in 1968 and 1998], Paris, Seuil, 2000.

[5See M. Duru-Bellat, A. Kieffer, “Les deux faces – objective/subjective – de la mobilité sociale” [The two aspects – objective/subjective – of social mobility], in Sociologie du travail, vol. 48, n°4, 2006, pp. 455-473.

[6G. Forgeot, J. Gautié, “Insertion professionnelle des jeunes et processus de déclassement” [Young people joining the workforce and processes of social demotion], in Économie et statistique, n°304-305, 1997, pp. 53-74.

[7Richard Hoggart’s landmark work could have been cited: R. Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy: aspects of working class life, first published London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.

[8See O. Schwartz, La Notion de « classes populaires » [The concept of the working classes], HDR in sociology (thesis to gain accreditation to supervise research), University of Versailles – Saint Quentin en Yvelines, 1998, Chapter 6 : Vers de nouveaux types de groupes dominés ? Quelques remarques.

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