Joanie Cayouette-Remblière and Anne Lambert

INED researchers Joanie Cayouette-Remblière and Anne Lambert tell us about the new book they edited, L’explosion des inégalités. Classes, genre et générations face à la crise sanitaire [A spectacular rise in inequalities: class, gender, and generations up against the [COVID] public health crisis]

Your book is based on hitherto unpublished statistics that you collected in France during the first lockdown period, together with a series of family interviews. How did you arrange to meet with those families and what did you ask them about?

The book is based on a two-pronged study. First, between April 30 and May 2, 2020, a questionnaire was sent out to a representative sample of the adult French population, providing us with framing data for a unprecedented social fact at a time when no data was as yet available. This material quickly informed us on the employment rates and working conditions of men and women and the different socio-occupational categories and the situation of young people under lockdown. In parallel, we interviewed and were able to draw detailed portraits of twenty families, giving us a clearer picture of the experience of lockdown, changes in intra-family relations, and how individuals experienced and represented the crisis. This involved “revisiting” respondents in the sense that we once again contacted respondents we had been following for quite some time, the aim being to situate the lockdown experience within long life histories. This methodological choice was a way of overcoming the constraints of the first lockdown period (as we could not move around or engage in interpersonal interactions—precisely what interviewing requires). Overall, the survey brings to light how the health crisis impacted individuals’ social outcomes and reveals a crisis-caused explosion in multidimensional, cumulative inequalities. 

How did the first lockdown exacerbate inequalities?

The health crisis erupted in an already degraded social fabric, one marked since the early 2000s by deepening inequalities in living conditions due to changes at both the high and low ends of the social spectrum (increasing income and multiple real estate properties for the wealthy; increasingly unstable employment and poor housing for the underpriveleged). While the first lockdown affected all social groups and the entire country, those effects were not the same for everyone. In sum, they exacerbated gender-specific, class-based, and generation-related social inequalities that had already been rising since the early 2000s. With regard to employment, women, young people, and manual workers were the most heavily affected by having to stop work (regardless of the reason) and the resulting fall in income. The fact that youth employment fell by half during the first lockdown (as opposed to a third in other age brackets) is explained by the long-term exacerbation of their difficulty finding stable jobs: their employment situations are not as protective; a third of them work either on precarious job contracts or without any contract at all; and jobs they have pay less than those of earlier generations, as a recent CEREQ study recalls (Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur les Qualifications). Generally speaking, those in the tightest economic straits to begin with suffered the greatest financial losses during lockdown and are likely to have had the greatest housing difficulties while the best-off were not only increasing their savings but also their cultural, social, and symbolic capital during this “waiting” period—an observation illustrated by our family portraits, which show, on one side, the opportunities for “ascetic” and cultured leisure activities in the upper classes during the hiatus, sometimes described as “enchanted,” and, on the other, the daily adjustments that the working class had to make in order to cope with the situation (managing temporary residential overcrowding, relying on local solidarity, accepting informal work, etc.). 

From this perspective, France’s first lockdown particularly exacerbated gender inequalities, in three ways. First, it led more women than men to withdraw from the labor market, including women whose jobs allowed for remote working. Second, within the home, lockdown accentuated ordinary routines involving already unequal sharing of domestic and parenting work at a time when the overall volume of such tasks rose abruptly due to school, daycare, and family aid service closings. More women than men of all social classes living with children reported experiencing difficult moments and periods during the day. Third, due to the unequal distribution of space within private homes, more men than women working remotely had a dedicated work space (one male manager in two as opposed to one female manager in four). 

In these ways, lockdown reinforced existing gender, class, and generational inequalities in the areas of work, housing, and social relations—three spheres that are, in fact, closely interconnected.