New Perspectives for Learning - Briefing Paper 54

Work Identities in Europe

Context of the Research

Employees in Europe are increasingly exposed to demands for flexibility and mobility at work. They are challenged to adjust to continuous changes like technological innovations, the development of globalised economies and organisational restructuring.

Adjusting to these changes requires specific learning and work attitudes that enable the individual to actively engage in work processes in order to ensure their successful integration into the labour market. “Work identities” can play a decisive role in this process as they help employees to define a professional orientation and develop work attachment and commitment.

The project has mapped some of the different ways “work identities” are composed, decomposed and restructured in a time of change. It has investigated the elements that influence identity formation processes at work and how these processes develop when employees are challenged to cope with flexibility, changing work settings, new skill requirements and demands for greater mobility.

By looking at how these processes influence an individual’s concept of work and career orientations, work identities were conceptualised as forms of identification individuals develop with their job, work setting or their employer. Research confirms a strong connection between employees’ forms of identification with work and their work commitment, motivation, performance and quality of work.

In order to represent the variety and diversity of Europe with regards to the cultural, socio-economic and political embedding of work concepts, occupations and vocational education and training systems, the project was conducted in seven European countries - Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Spain and the United Kingdom - focusing on different occupations across five contrasting sectors - metal working industry/engineering, health care, telecommunications/IT, tourism and the timber/furniture industry.

Key Conclusions

  1. Three dominant modes of ‘strategic action’ taken by employees in forming their work-related identities have been identified: -

2.   Employer-employee relations are increasingly based upon a ‘user-provider’ concept of work by which the employee is rather considered as a self-employed ‘entrepreneur’ who is selling his or her services, skills and competencies upon demand. This model assumes a high level of flexibility, continuous learning, risk management capacity and the ability to actively shape and construct one’s own work identity and career orientation.

3.   This new form of employer-employee relationship has a number of implications:

4.   However, not all employees and workers possess the personal resources to cope with demands for making flexible adjustments in relation to their job, skills and career orientation. For example, high pressure for time flexibility and horizontal mobility that involve changing work tasks, professional roles or employers, often lead to stress and a lack of control over work performance. This can be observed especially within occupations and organisations where the requirements for flexibility and mobility are high and related forms of work organisation and tasks are changing rapidly such as in the IT sector.

5.   There is also a danger of segmentation of the work force by excluding an increasing number of people who cannot or do not have the means to be an ‘entrepreneurial’ type of employee, because they lack the right qualifications or skills; they may come from a disadvantaged socio-economic background; they may not be very flexible in general or prefer to hold on to more classical forms of work concepts.

6.   The number of employees in Europe who are not of an ‘entrepreneurial’ type and thus could be at a disadvantage is potentially high.

7.   This has implications for the social costs that might be incurred by government and other agencies. These costs are dependent on the extent to which workers and employees are equipped and prepared to cope with these changing requirements.

Key Recommendations

1.      Most employees, but particularly workers at the intermediate skills level over 35 years of age need to be actively supported and guided to cope with changing work settings to avoid them falling into a passive ‘retreat’ strategy that will ultimately lead to their professional exclusion. Work-related socialisation and learning can play a decisive role in better equipping employees to deal with such challenges. 

2.   There is a need to encourage flexibility in learning during and between initial education and work-related continuous vocational training by:

3.   There is a need to develop more comprehensive and active socio-vocational inclusion/re-inclusion programmes based upon effective and individualised accompaniment and continuing follow-up.

4.   There is a need to encourage self-initiated and directed continuous vocational learning and ‘competence audits’ for self-guided socio-professional development.

Further Information

The full title of the project is: ”FAME - Vocational Identity, Flexibility and Mobility in the European Labour Market”. The final report was completed in July 2003.

The Project’s web site:

Partner details

Key Publications

Working Papers:

FAME Consortium, Work-related Identities in Europe: How Personnel Management and HR Policies Shape Workers‘ Identities, ITB Working Paper Series No. 46, University of Bremen 2003.

Laske, G. (ed.), Project Papers: Vocational Identity, Flexibility and Mobility in the European Labour Market (FAME), ITB Working Paper Series No. 27, Bremen, University of Bremen, 2001.

Kirpal, S., Work Identities in Europe: Continuity and Change. Final Report of the 5th EU Framework Project ‘FAME’, ITB Working Paper Series No. 49, Bremen, University of Bremen, 2004.

Brown, A., Marhuenda, F. and Navas, A., Managers’ perspectives on work-related identities, flexibility and mobility in the employment and deployment of radiographers in the UK and Spain, IER, University of Warwick, 2002.

Kirpal, S., Nurses in Europe: Work Identities of Nurses across 4 European Countries, ITB Research Paper Series, 07/2003, Bremen, University of Bremen.


Marhuenda, F., Navas, A. and Roda, F. Explorando las identidades profesionales. Materiales curriculares para el área de FOL, Universitat de València, ISBN: 84-370-5546-6, 2003.

Martínez. F., Condiciones de trabajo e identidad laboral en el sector hotelero en la Comunidad Valenciana. Universitat de València, ISBN: 84-370-5655-1, 2003.

Chapter in a book:

Brown, A. and Kirpal, S., “‘Old nurses with new qualifications are best’: managers’ attitudes towards the recruitment of health care professionals in Estonia, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom”, in Warhurst, C., Keep, E. and Grugulis, I.  (eds.), The Skills that Matter, New York, Palgrave, 2003.

Journal Articles:

Kirpal, S. (ed.), “Work Identities in Europe”, Career Development International, Vol. 9, no. 3 (Special Issue) with contributions from Brown, A.; Dif, M’Hamed; Kirpal, S.; Loogma, K.; Marhuenda, F.; Martínez Morales, I.; Navas, A.; Ümarik, M.; and Vilu, R.

Brown, A., “Engineering Identities”, Career Development International, Vol. 9, no. 3, pp.245-273, 2004.

Dif, M., “Vocational Identities in Change in the Telecommunications Sector”, Career Development International, Vol. 9, no. 3, pp.305-322, 2004.

Kirpal, S. “Researching Work Identities in a European Context”, Career Development International, Vol. 9, no. 3, pp.199-221, 2004.

Kirpal, S., “Work Identities of Nurses: between Caring and Efficiency Demands”, Career Development International, Vol. 9, no. 3, pp.274-304, 2004.

Loogma, K., Ümarik, M. and Vilu, R., “Identification - flexibility dilemma of IT specialists”, Career Development International, Vol. 9, no. 3, pp.323-348, 2004.

Marhuenda, F., Martínez Morales, I. and Navas, A, “Conflicting Vocational Identities and Careers in the Sector of Tourism”, Career Development International, Vol. 9, no. 3, pp.222-244, 2004.

On-line publications:

Dif, M., “On the Emerging Models of Labour Flexibility within the French CVT Institutions: Implications for inclusion, skill and identity formation”, paper presented at TSER FORUM on “Identities in VET and Labour Market”, Nant Gwythern, Wales, 29 June - 2 July 2000.

Dif, M., “Induced Labour Mobility through Continuing Vocational Training: Investigating its Development in the French Context during the Last Three Decades”, in Manning, S. & Raffe, D. (eds.), VETNET ECER 2000 Proceedings, (also at ERIC “Resource in Education” since September 2002)

Research Institutions

ITB/ University of Bremen, Germany

Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick, United Kingdom

BETA/Céreq Alsace, University Louis Pasteur of Strasbourg, France

Departament de Didàctica i Organització Escolar, University of Valencia, Spain

Technical University of Tallinn, Estonia

University of Patras, Greece

National Observatory of VET and Labour Market, Czech Republic

Contact Person

Simone Kirpal
ITB (Institute Technology and Education)
University of Bremen
Am Fallturm 1
28359 Bremen

Tel: +49 421 218 46 46
Fax: + 49 421 218 46 37

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Last updated 28 June 2007