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Sedentary, but highly mobile

In Germany every second person of working age has experience with occupational mobility

Germans are considered to be sedentary and unwilling to leave their familiar surroundings, but the labour market requires more mobile and flexible workers than ever before.

In fact, every second German of working age already has experience of occupational mobility: moving for work-related reasons, commuting long distances to the workplace every day, living in long-distance or weekend relationships because of work, working abroad or going frequently on long business trips.

"In general we can say that occupational mobility is of significant social relevance: Every fifth full-time worker has to be mobile for professional reasons and another third has been mobile at least once during the course of their working life," says Prof. Norbert Schneider of the Department of Sociology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and project leader of this study. "The Germans do not like leaving their familiar surroundings, but at the same time they are very mobile: Workers in the Federal Republic of Germany regularly commute long distances to their workplace or frequently go on lengthy business trips because their work demands it, but they seldom move for professional reasons." Only 20% of those who are professionally mobile have moved to another region within Germany or even to another country.

The dynamics of mobility in Germany are more evident from the fact that 80% of those who are mobile travel regularly, covering long distances to their workplace or frequently staying overnight elsewhere.

These results form part of the first representative study of the causes, prevalence, and consequences of occupational mobility in Germany and five other European countries. For this innovative research project, a total of 7,150 subjects aged 25 to 54 years, of whom 1,663 were in Germany, were surveyed. The study titled "Job Mobilities and Family Lives in Europe" is financially subsidized by the EU Commission and coordinated by the Institute of Sociology at Mainz University. Apart from Germany, it is being conducted in Belgium, France, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland. "The differences between the various European countries are not particularly significant. Mobility is currently lowest in Spain and highest in Germany," says Prof. Gerardo Meil of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

There are age- and education-related differences among Germans with regard to how mobile they are. While older employees and persons without university degrees are hesitant to move and prefer to commute, young people and academics are willing to move. People become increasingly less mobile with advancing age. Academics are generally more mobile than other qualificational groups, although the authors of the study do point out that the differences between qualificational groups are minor.

But there are clear differences between the sexes: men are twice as mobile as women. If, however, the women do not have children, their mobility rate exceeds that of childless men. While parenthood clearly leads to a drop in women's mobility, fathers are no different from childless men in this respect. In the opinion of the Mainz sociologists, the consequences of their findings are that, among other things, increased mobility will make even more problematic the combination of work with family, especially in the case of women, and that mothers may be disadvantaged on the employment market.

"According to our results, women with children are generally less prepared to be mobile," explains Heiko Rüger of the Institute for Sociology. At the same time it has been confirmed that occupational mobility is not without consequences for the development of the family. "The effects are particularly clear in one respect: Mobile women are significantly more often childless than non-mobile working women. In addition, mobility may also more frequently result in the postponement of parenthood, which means that people are having their children later than originally planned," Rüger explained.

Mobility appears to have become a normal state of affairs in the working lives of many Germans. "We assume that occupational mobility today is not primarily used as a way of climbing the career ladder, but is accepted as necessary to avoid unemployment and social decline," says Detlev Lück, member of Prof. Schneider's team. This development may mean that people who are unable to meet mobility requirements are the losers in the modernization game and are subject to a higher risk of social decline. And numbers here are not small, as such people make up approximately one quarter of the population. It appears, however, that increasing mobility is not only attributable to increasing economic requirements.

"Given the changes in the perception of partnerships and the role of women, as well as the associated increase in the number of couples with both partners working, a major reason for such changes lies outside the economic domain," states Lück. Mobility then becomes a problem-solving strategy to combine the working lives of both partners, for example by accepting long daily commuting times or weekend commuting.

Although mobility has become part of the daily working lives of many Germans, not all of them are happy with it. Only one third of those who are mobile regards their mobility as an "opportunity." On the other hand, some 55% regard mobility as a "necessity," while 12% even see their mobility as a "constraint." There is generally a good reason for becoming mobile. It appears, however, that such people are also faced with some major disadvantages: Ffrequent exhaustion and a lack of time for maintaining social interactions are only two of the prevalently mentioned disadvantages of mobility. "Overall, the daily working life of mobile persons is clearly more stressful than that of working people who live and work in the same place," states Prof. Ruth Limmer, psychologist and project partner at the Georg Simon Ohm University in Nuremberg.

She also emphasises that certain people who need to be mobile for work purposes, such as long-distance commuters or older working people, not only have a more stressful daily working life, but also a clearly more stressful private life. If the situation of the occupationally mobile cannot be improved, there will be the risk of a considerable deterioration in psychological, physical, and social well-being.

Silvia Ruppenthal | alfa
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