Although West Germany became primarily a services-sector economy in the 1970s, blue-collar workers remain a vitally important segment of the workforce, even though they are outnumbered by salaried employees. At the end of the 1980s, workers accounted for two-fifths of the workforce in West Germany, a drop from three-fifths in 1900 and slightly more than one-half in 1960. The social market economy and powerful trade unions greatly improved workers' working conditions, job security, and living standards in the postwar era. Between 1970 and 1989, for example, their average net earnings increased 41 percent in real terms, more than any other group except for the self-employed (not including farmers) and pensioners. In the 1980s, about 43 percent of skilled workers and 29 percent of unskilled or partially trained workers lived in their own houses or apartments; automobile ownership and lengthy vacations (often abroad) had become the rule.
As a result of these changes, German workers no longer live separately from the rest of society as was the case in the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century. The gradual, so-called deproletarianization has caused some sociologists to maintain that it is no longer accurate to speak of German workers as a separate social group. Geissler is aware of the much-improved living standards of the workers and the gradual disappearance of a proletarian lifestyle, but he maintains that workers still constitute a distinct group because their earnings are lower than average, their work is physically demanding and closely supervised, and their children's opportunities for social advancement are not as good as those of most other groups. In addition, most workers still regard themselves as members of the working class, although a growing percentage see themselves as middle class.
According to Geissler, the working class is composed of three distinct subgroups: elite, skilled, and unskilled or partially trained workers. In the mid-1980s, about 12 percent of the population lived in the households of the worker elite, 19 percent in those of skilled workers, and 16 percent in those of the unskilled.
The worker elite, which is composed of supervisors and highly trained personnel, enjoys better pay than the other groups. Its work is less physically demanding and resembles that of salaried employees. Only one-third of the sons of the worker elite remain workers, and about one-half of the group see themselves as members of the middle class.
Skilled workers have completed a set course of vocational training. This group has expanded in recent decades and in the early 1990s outnumbered the unskilled, which even as late as 1970 accounted for 57 percent of workers.
Unskilled workers perform the poorest paid and dirtiest tasks. Foreigners account for about 25 percent of this group and German women for about 38 percent. A portion of this group lives below the poverty line. In addition to their other burdens, the unskilled are most likely to become unemployed and involved in criminal activity.
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