The pitch of the book
Philippe d’Iribarne – © Jérôme Chatin EXPANSION-REA
The economist-anthropologist-sociologist Philippe d’Iribarne has set himself the goal, in his book “Le grand déclassement”, published in October 2022, to understand why the French feel uneasy about work. “Why the French no longer like their work”, as the banner of the book points out.
He explains this phenomenon by loss of collective meaning facing work, recognition deficit on the part of managers, which is accompanied by an increase in psychosocial risks (read here our article Mental health: why managers are not doing well).
For d’Iribarne, this French evil is explained both by the globalization of management and speak old french aristocratic background which imposes on populations a social classification, a rank to hold, based on the “quality” of their work. The declining place of France in the concert of Nations at the collective level, the feeling of derogating from one’s diplomas, meaningless work at the individual level would then lead the French into a “great downgrading”.
“The great downgrading” by Philippe D’Iribarne, Albin Michel, October 2022. 170 pages.
1/ The obsession with rank
The multi-cap of Iribarne, director of research at the CNRS, engineer from the Basque nobility, the publisher reports as quickly as possible his diploma acquired at the polytechnic school, knows what he is talking about when he mentions France, a society based on honor. The honor of being a noble by its particle or by its initial course. The author therefore begins with a societal portrait of a France where an aristocratic position clashes, attentive to the rank, “to everything that separates the noble from the common”to a population – some call them the French from below – who reject “any difference in nobility between those occupying different positions in society”.
The rank thus obtained has such significance that, if it is brilliant, it is mentioned in death announcements.
“The great downgrading”, Philippe d’iribarne (page 58)
Each is therefore positioned in a “caste” where, as Iribarne writes in the Old Regime way, “It’s not up to parents to tell teachers what to do in class. No more than passing politicians, business leaders, the imam, the bishop or the local senator. In the last resort, the master owes himself only to the internal logic of his discipline..
For d’Iribarne, this idea of the Old Regime was little opposed by the French Revolution: in fact, he wrote, “ranked society is intimately mingled with the France that emerged from the Enlightenment. The rejection of the old regime did not lead to the rejection of the values of honor and nobility”.
This sheds light on the misfortune of professions considered by our society as “without nobility” : nursing auxiliaries, service agents relegated to the roles of “good for everything”. Or those of “bullshit jobs” : communicators, consultants and other strategic analysts. Wouldn’t they be “the equivalent of servants, bear masters (…) rendering small services to the lords of the lords”, asks our Polytechnician. In short, in France, you have to be someone who has a status to be someone.
2/ Specifically French manager/managed relationships
For d’iribarne, in this specific world of French work, belonging to a status is essential.
This is less the case in the USA where manager-managed relationships are inspired by the contractual model between an independent supplier – the employee – and his client – the superior, with a company seen as a moral community led by a leader responsible for “to lead its members on the path of good”. In this type of society, the servant is then equal to the master and it is the momentary and free agreement of their wills that governs this contract. This is not the case in France.
Likewise in Germany, “German freedom is desired discipline, advancement and development of one’s own self in a whole and for a whole”. Same thing in the Netherlands where the purpose of a meeting is less to exchange ideas than to develop actions “and a vision of how to move forward”.
However, it is these non-French managerial modes that dominate our world today…
3/ A bad experience of globalization
For almost half a century, forced globalization has highlighted the “consumer interests and the benefits of competition” globalized, according to d’Iribarne. However, these effects not being taken into account on the employees are “particularly harmful in the French context” with a market seen as a justice of the peace separating the strong, the graduates from the others who will have to disappear.
This globalization comes to abolish customer loyalty and destabilize the French working world whose “access to honorable work is an essential issue”.
4/ Downgraded people, including among “noble” professions
D’Iribarne points to a French company with “a growing hiatus between academic nobility and level of position held”. However, in France, “Possession of a school title, like titles of nobility in ancient France, confers a certain level of grandeur, which makes it a considerable stake”.
In the French compromise, “everyone – this is the egalitarian dimension – has the right to reach the top. But not everyone (this is the aristocratic dimension) is considered to have the same abilities”. The democratization of education, as indicated by the Langevin-Wallon plan of 1947, must “everyone in the place who assigns his abilities to him, for the greater good of all”. In these tensions troubling French society, “one suffers, the other does not”as one of the book’s chapters points out.
Those who suffer are already known: the yellow vests have thus hit the headlines. But d’Iribarne adds categories of professions that are not spontaneously thought of as downgraded: hospital doctors subject to bureaucratic control, journalists threatened in their identity, firefighters becoming service providers… We could add engineers subject to harassing reporting, discredited and/or underpaid teachers… Alongside them, we find the very wealthy creators of unicorns.
Several groups cohabit in French society:
– Some, who are more qualified and have a stable job, find their job interesting
– Others with relatively few qualifications and often blue-collar workers accept a modest professional situation without complaining.
– In a third group, we find the work uninteresting, not in line with their qualifications, boring…
– And the 4th complains about his working conditions with the impression of feeling trapped, a feeling of hurt honor, a particularly strong feeling among seniors.
5/ Remedies for this melancholy
D’Iribarne concludes with a (small) series of remedies to heal this feeling of decay and loss of the meaning of work. He rejects a management participatory German-style just like the chimeras of liberated companies filled with “chief happiness officer”… This does not suit the French.
He then proposes some solutions. It thus promotes the agile enterprise which leads to lightening the burden of bureaucracy and control to leave greater room for maneuver to those who are ready to take action.
He also advocates telecommuting with French people finding “autonomy, time and family ties”.
And to conclude: “Companies which, taking some distance from the invasion of procedures, controls, reporting, are ready to grant more confidence to the actors in the field, and to engage a management consistent with this confidence, can expect to reap great fruits from it”.