New Precariousness

by Lutz Raphael

In Western Europe in the 1970s – and after 1989 also in the Eastern countries of Europe – universities were the most important places of employment for historians. In many, but not all, Western countries the number of students grew more rapidly than the number of lecturers and professors, so that teaching and research infrastructures soon became inadequate and badly in need of resources, especially so public libraries and archives.

However, the figures on broad quantitative growth conceal a more complex institutional situation. The material equipment and functional services for historical scholarship underwent changes that differed substantially among the European countries. In the 1970s, in Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria or the Scandinavian countries, archives, research libraries, and the technical equipment of universities and research institutions were sufficiently funded, and they rapidly adapted to the new informational technologies. But in France, and even more so in Italy or Spain, the balance was much more critical, and many services necessary for historical scholarship were not fully available or not sufficiently funded. After 1989 in Eastern Europe, the post-socialist regimes – some of them more than others – inherited overcrowded and poorly equipped infrastructures in dilapidated buildings, and the funds were lacking to maintain them and to buy new technological equipment. As regards academic staff, the end of communism also meant the end of secure and adequately paid jobs. Even where older staff members were able to keep their jobs, their conditions were enormously worsened by a steep decrease in real wages, and many researchers and professors had to find a second and sometimes a third source of income in order to provide for their basic needs. Hence, the expansion was accompanied by the loss of the smaller or greater privileges which until the 1960s had protected the small group of professional historians against the social and economic insecurities typical of the societies surrounding them. The new governments had priorities other than developing the humanities in their countries. Public universities and public research institutions thus remained often dramatically underfunded, whereas new private foundations began to fulfil international standards. In some cases, for instance Albania, the institutional foundations of the discipline itself were in danger.

In short, the area in which there were good infrastructures for research was largely restricted to North-Western and Central Europe. However, this general statement should be both relativized and specified on the basis of detailed data, although these are not yet available with specific regard to the historical profession and its infrastructure.

As in the case of the other humanities disciplines, the boom years also profoundly changed the hierarchies within the profession. On the one hand, less power was concentrated in the hands of chair holders or directors of research institutes, and in some countries – France for example – even chairs as such were abolished. Although more (in absolute values) women were appointed to posts, in many countries the conditions under which younger historians had to start their careers worsened. Not only did the number of doctorate-holders increase, thus generating more competition for fewer posts, but young scholars had to accept short-term contracts, often for part–time work, and a growing number of them depended on short-term research projects.

Where the system of higher education was systematically underfunded, as in France (with the exception of the grandes écoles), Italy, or to a much greater extent Eastern Europe, the number of scholars forced to accept precarious jobs and low wages rose from the 1980s onwards. In Italy, the professional association of contemporary historians, SISSCO, reported in 2003 that more than 17 per cent of its members had precarious employment relationships. In Germany during the 1980s, a growing number of young historians worked as researchers on projects that were generally funded for only two to four years. During the 1990s, between 430 and 460 younger scholars were employed as researchers on projects financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft: they represented more than 15 per cent of the entire population of trained professional historians (3000) in the country. A 2002 survey showed that around 20 per cent of ‘Privatdozenten’ – the full professors of the future – had followed this career path. In many Western countries, young historians had to wait many years, and often until the age of 45, before they became professors, lecturers or researchers on open-ended contracts.

Thus, generally speaking, the 1980s – which witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of trained young historians due also to the opening of universities to new social milieus and broadening of the student bodies – also marked the beginning of a new period of insecurity and growing diversity of working conditions in the humanities, as well as in historical scholarship. Especially in some countries, such as Italy, the expansion of doctoral programmes clashed with a highly rigid intellectual labour market and lower demand by alternative research institutions offering employment.

Another phenomenon which should receive closer attention is the emigration of young historians to other European countries providing better research opportunities, or to the United States.

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