Between Welfare State Retrenchments, Globalization, and Declining Returns to Credentials: The French Middle Classes Under Stress

Monday, 11 July 2016: 11:00
Location: Hörsaal 30 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Louis CHAUVEL, University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg
In a critical approach of Bourdieu (1979) and Schmoller (1897) before him, and within a Piketty (2013) debate, I rework here the multipolarity of middle classes between higher and lower, and between cultural and economic capitals. This theoretical reconstruction helps understand the "middle classes adrift" in France and Continental Europe. After the golden age of the "new wage earner middle class" and the Welfare state expansion, the European social structure faces a trend of "repatrimonialization" (or re-wealth-isation), a U-turn towards expansion of wealth and a relative decline in the value of middle level skills. Assets, housing, inheritance, savings, and wealth accumulation, more than consumption in broad definition, are again key issues. First, a new description of repatrimonialization is useful in the specific European context of middle class societies. We need a re-definition of the system of middle classes (plural) in the context of the construction and decline of strong welfare states. Second, we have to analyze three ruptures in the social trends of the ‘wage earner society’. In this period, economic growth, social homogenization, and social protection were major contextual elements of the expansion of a ‘new middle class,’ based on educational meritocracy, the valorization of credentialed skills, and ‘depatrimonialization’. After the 1980s, the post-affluent society generated a backlash in the system of middle classes. Third, I analyze the demographic and social consequences of the new trends in terms of the shrinking and quartering of the middle classes in a context where the inheritance of assets and resources changed the previous equilibrium. Finally, I highlight the importance of addressing the problem of social stability when large strata of the middle class have less interest in the maintenance of the social order.