Les trente glorieuses: 1945-1975 - II Employment & Education

In our first lecture, we grappled with the main social and economic changes of the period known as les trente glorieuses (lecture 1). However, how far and how fast did France truly change as a country at this time? Did the economic modernisation of France in this period lead to greater equality of opportunity and of outcome for all of the French? It is certainly the case that most of the French in this period, regardless of social class, enjoyed increasing levels of prosperity. However, to what extent did this general rise in living standards correspond to a more equal society in which disparities in both income and opportunity were being erased?

Changing Patterns of Employment
France's growing prosperity and the modernization of its economy and infrastructure (e.g. an increasing uniformity in housing) that gave the illusion of a more equal society. Up to a point, there is a case to be made for this as many hundreds of thousands of French men and women found work in France's booming industrial and service sectors, building new lives for themselves in France's towns, cities and suburbs. New economic trends undoubtedly offered the French new opportunities not enjoyed by earlier generations. The chance to leave one's village for the city, or to pursue a career in industry rather than agriculture. It no longer went without saying that a son or daughter should follow in their parents footsteps. There was a real shift in attitude created by new economic developments: new attitudes to what jobs were appropriate and new attitudes to geographical location.

It was, of course, rural France and agriculture that felt the full force of these social changes. The traditional rural home, with three generations living under the same roof became a thing of the past (Larkin: 1988 p.200). Old ways of life could no longer hold on to a youth more attracted to new industries and higher wagesd

Disparities in income between social groups were as high as they were before the war. Paradoxically, pay rises in the 1950s and 1960s favoured management to the detriment of unskilled workers. For example, between 1956 and 1964, management salaries increased by 40% in real terms as opposed to a 25% increase in real terms for skilled workers and a lowly 4% increase in real terms of the minimum wage (Larkin: 1988 p.205.

Distribution of Income in France (mid 1950s)

                                                        % of working
% of income
                                                        population (1954)               (1956)

Farmers                                                 20.7                            10.3
Farm-workers                                            6.0                             1.8
Industrial/Commercial Employers                         12.0                            15.7
Senior Management/Liberal Professions                   2.9                             7.0
Middle Management                                       5.8                             5.9
White-collar workers                                    10.8                            5.5
Blue-collar workers                                     33.8                            20.8
Service Workers                                         5.3                             1.3
Other Categories                                        2.7                             2.4
Not in work                                                ___                          12.1

Pierre Belleville, Une nouvelle classe ouvrière (1963)
Serge Mallet, La nouvelle classe ouvrière (1963)

Une `société bloquée'
In his book La France de l'expansion: la République gaullienne 1958-1969, Serge Bernstein writes of what he calls `les vaincus de la croissance' (Bernstein: 1989 p.191). Economic growth and the growing prosperity which resulted was not shared by all and some were left stranded by the tide of change. Perhaps the clearest example of a social group left behind by the postwar developments was the peasantry.

France's modernised industry is sucking in more and more labour from the countryside; moreover, the economic policies of sucessive French governments (e.g. Debré and Pompidou) placed the emphasis on cost effective methods of farming that used less labour and more machinery. Low wages and stagnating living standards that were significantly below the national average. France's booming postwar industry and the growing importance of the service sector led to a lower percentage of France's working population involved in agriculture than before.

Their decline went hand-in-hand with rural depopulation, another phenomenon of the postwar years. In certain areas of poor soil and climatic difficulties (e.g. le midi), rural depopulation was even more pronounced.

Le petit patronat - small business owners also felt the pressure of a new society where the largest and most technologically advanced industries prospered.

Percentage of working population of those employed in small businesses

1954         12%
1975        8.7%
Production, distribution

Evolution of Socio-professional Groups in France
(% of total working population)

                                                        1954                1962                1968        1975

Farmers                                                 20.7                15.8                12        7.7
Farm-workers                                            6.0                4.3                2.9        1.8
Industrial/Commercial Employers                         12.0                10.6                9.6        8.7
Senior Management/Liberal Professions                   2.9                4                4.9        6.9
Middle Management                                       5.8                7.8                9.9        13.8
White-collar workers                                    10.8                12.5                14.8        16.6
Blue-collar workers                                     33.8                36.7                37.7        37
Service Workers                                         5.3                5.4                5.7        6.1
Other Categories                                        2.7                2.9                2.6        1.4

Education in Postwar France
In 1956 René Billières, the then Education Minister, claimed that only 21% of working-class children went on to secondary education, the percentage dropping to 13% amongst children of farmworkers (Larkin: 1988 p.211). Only in 1967 did the school leaving age of 16 come into effect.

The period of les trente glorieuses witnessed rapid growth in education, particularly, in higher education. In 1936, for example, there were just 74,000 university students in France. By 1945 this had nearly doubled to 130,000. By 1965 it had nearly trebled to 367,000 and by 1971 nearly doubled again to 680,000. However, much of this expansion was attributable to the baby boom that started in the mid-1940s rather than to any real widening of the social mix of students. The social composition of the student population remained substantially unchanged. Middle-class children, whose parents came from the so-called professions libérales (lawyers, doctors, professors etc.), were still over-represented and working-class children still under-represented. To give you just one example of this imbalance, in 1961, 58.5% of university enrolment came from the middle classes and only 5.5% from the working classes. Higher education, and the passport to higher education, the baccalauréat, were very much the chasse gardée (private hunting ground) of the middle classes. Those working-class students in the system tended to be the exception and, in general, older than their more privileged fellow students.

During the 1960s and 1970s a number of theories were put forward to explain the failure of working-class children within the school system and their low participation rates in higher education. Perhaps the most influential account came from the sociological research produced in the 1960s and 1970s by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean- Claude Passeron. Two books in particular stand out: the first is Les Héritiers published in 1964 and the second is La Reproduction published in 1970. Although they are both collaborative works, the language and concepts used reveal the greater influence of Bourdieu.

Bourdieu and Passeron's work of this period sets out to theorise the relationship between the educational system and social reproduction, that is to say, the ways in which our society `reproduces' the citizens it needs to maintain the status quo. The educational system, Bourdieu and Passeron claim, plays a major role in `reproducing' individuals who will perpetuate the divisions of capitalist society and in ensuring that inequalities pass on from one generation to the next. The educational system played a central role in reproducing class relations but this role was, Bourdieu and Passeron claimed, concealed under the mask of supposedly egalitarian and meritocratic processes.

A concept central to Bourdieu and Passeron's work is that of what they call `l'arbitraire culturel'. Bourdieu and Passeron rejected the idea of culture with a capital C, that is to say, they claimed that no culture was superior to another. All cultures were arbitrary. However, in order to consolidate and legitimate their power, the dominant classes who control economic and political resources, sought to impose their own culture as the only one of any value. This `arbitraire culturel' of the dominant classes was imposed through what Bourdieu and Passeron called `l'action pédagogique'. By this, they meant social interaction with adults or peers, the family environment and, above all, institutionalized education. Bourdieu and Passeron claimed that all pedagogic action, and by extension, all schooling, was a kind of symbolic violence:
Toute action pédagogique est objectivement une violence symbolique en tant qu'imposition, par un pouvoir arbitraire, d'un arbitraire culturel.
Bourdieu & Passeron, La Reproduction (Paris: Minuit, 1970)

It followed from Bourdieu and Passeron's arguments, that it was primarily those children who were already in possession of some of the dominant culture who'd performed best at school. They used the term `cultural capital' (`le capital culturel') to describe middle-class children's symbolic mastery of `l'arbitraire culturel'.

Success at school was not then, claimed Bourdieu and Passeron, the result of intelligence, imagination and hard work, but the reward for accumulating and reproducing the necesary `cultural capital'. Here is an extract from Pierre Bourdieu's later sociological writings on the notion of `le capital culturel' and its relationship to the school system:
La notion de capital culturel s'est imposée d'abord comme une hypothèse indispensable pour rendre compte de l'inégalité des performances scolaires des enfants issus des différentes classes sociales en rapportant la `réussite scolaire', c'est-à-dire les profits spécifiques que les enfants des différentes classes peuvent obtenir sur le marché scolaire à la distribution du capital culturel entre les classes et les fractions de classes. Ce point de départ implique une rupture avec les présupposés inhérents aussi bien à la vision ordinaire qui tient le succès ou l'échec scolaire pour un effet des `aptitudes' naturelles qu'aux théories du `capital humain'.
Pierre Bourdieu, `Les Trois états du capital culturel' in Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 30 (1979)

Bourdieu and Passeron maintained that `cultural capital', like economic capital, works to the advantage of those who are already in possession of a certain degree of it in the first place. Those groups or classes who have already acquired an initial predisposition towards that symbolic mastery will do best at school. In practice, this meant children of middle-class parents. The concept of `cultural capital' then, could be used to explain the poor academic performance of working-class kids. Lacking the sort of culture endorsed and valued by the educational institutions, working-class children inevitably did badly at school. The school system ensured that only those children in possession of the requisite `cultural capital' transmitted to them by their parents acheived any degree of academic success.

Further Reading

  • S. Bernstein La France de l'expansion: la République gaullienne 1958-1969 (Paris: Seuil, 1989)
  • M. Larkin, France since the Popular Front: Government and People 1936-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)

  • To cite:
    McNeill, T. (1998) 'Les trente glorieuses: 1945-1975 - II Employment & Education' in Communiqué online http://eserve.org.uk/tmc/ [Accessed ]