The Politics of Labor Market Inequality and Occupational Mobility

Project Description

Aims and Central Research Question:

We examine how individual experiences of occupational mobility shape political preferences. While occupational reorientation during the prosperous post-war era often meant material improvement, prospects of economic opportunity are much more fragile today. De-industrialization, globalization and technological change have impaired the social escalator by eliminating decent, middle-skill jobs. This research project studies the electoral repercussions of this development. We ask whether the widespread rise of anti-establishment parties is rooted in a transforming employment structure and why the mainstream Left has not been more successful in mobilizing disadvantaged voters. By implication, the project's findings contribute to a better understanding of structural sources and political causes behind the persistence of inequality in advanced capitalist democracies.


One of the most important sources of stratification in post-industrial societies today is the profound transformation of the employment structure. Existing research has largely established how structural economic change reshapes the aggregate composition of contemporary labor markets. Hence, this literature provides valuable insights about the relative political importance of distinct electoral constituencies. However, we lack a precise understanding of how and why labor market inequality affects individual political behavior. The central premise of this research project is that distinct reference points related to workers’ experience of occupational mobility shape individual perceptions of economic opportunity, which in turn influence the political response to occupational change. The project distinguishes between three distinct channels through which structurally-induced transformations of the employment structure affect opportunity perceptions and, subsequently, political participation and vote choice: (1) intragenerational, (2) intergenerational and (3) spatial occupational mobility.


The project's cornerstone is a original longitudinal survey fielded in Germany and the United Kingdom. In contrast to the usual approach of studying a representative sample aiming at population-wide inference, this survey tracks two specific electoral constituencies that are particularly exposed to transforming labor markets: a cohort of labor market entrants and a group of manufacturing workers in the hard-pressed automotive industry. In addition, each mobility channel demands specific empirical approaches, which include explorative fieldwork and a broad range of methods from the quantitative-empirical toolbox.


Political Science, Sociology, Economics

Starting Date

March 1, 2021


Reto Bürgisser (University of Zurich)

Find more information about Reto Bürgisser here.

Briitta van Staalduinen (Harvard University)

Find more information about Briitta van Staalduinen here.

Aina Gallego (IBEI)

Find more information about Aina Gallego here.


Related works

Kurer, T. (2020). The declining middle: Occupational change, social status, and the populist right. Comparative Political Studies, 53(10-11), 1798-1835.

Kurer, T. and van Staalduinen, B. (2020). Disappointed Expectations: Downward Mobility and Electoral Change. Working Paper.

Gallego, A., Kurer, T., & Schöll, N. (2020). Neither Left-Behind nor Superstar: Ordinary Winners of Digitalization at the Ballot. Journal of Politics, Forthcoming.