Movers and Stayers: Social Mobility, Migration and Skills

by Izabela Grabowska (Author)
©2016 Monographs 242 Pages


The author examines social mobility in the enlarged EU by analysing the work sequences of 1865 movers and stayers in Poland. Using indicators of upward and downward social mobility, she explores the role of migration in careers. Her research shows that migration adds dynamism to work paths and contributes to the improvement of people’s working lives. It also suggests that agency and reflexivity guide the acquisition of tacit skills during migration, resulting in various patterns of social mobility.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: Making the way through the world on the move
  • Chapter 1. Agency @ structure in social mobility of migrants
  • Chapter 2. Methodology of researching social mobility, migration and skills of movers and stayers
  • Chapter 3. Spatial mobility and social mobility of migrants and stayers in Poland
  • Chapter 4. Labour market sequences of migrants and stayers in Poland
  • Chapter 5. Agency, reflexivity and social mobility of migrants from Poland
  • Chapter 6. Social mobility, skills and migration of Poles
  • Epilogue and conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Appendix

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Movers and Stayers is an unusual work of migration scholarship. To a non-specialist it might seem obvious that, if we want to understand the migrant experience, migrants’ lives should be compared to those of non-migrants, but migration scholars tend to forget the ‘stayers’. Preoccupied with migrants and migration, they fail to provide context in the form of careful analysis of the sending society. By contrast, Grabowska compares the career paths and social mobility of Polish migrants with people who have always stayed in Poland. In addressing the important question of how social and geographical mobility intertwine – utilising an impressive array of data – she makes a valuable contribution to our understanding both of the impact of migration on (return) migrants, and of the wider society to which they return.

This is an exceptionally wide-ranging and erudite book, which should be of great interest to migration researchers, sociologists working outside migration, labour market economists and many others. It is a uniquely thorough study of the labour market mobility of recent Polish return migrants – a topic on which very little is known. However, it is also far more. Grabowska addresses big questions: How does agency relate to structure, in general and in migration? What is a career, and whose careers are really ‘boundaryless’? Why do some people migrate, while others stay at home? What distinguishes returnees from people who have never migrated? Can we find more satisfactory migrant typologies than hitherto – what really makes Migrant A different from Migrant B? How can one create a coherent account of individual migrants’ experiences in both sending and receiving countries? Can quantitative data (collected on the premise that reality exists objectively and that migration can be explained with theory) be combined with qualitative techniques, which ‘explain’ migration as the construct of individual migrants? And how (if at all) are 21st century migrants different from their predecessors?

Grabowska argues (following Margaret Archer) that reflexivity is the key to understanding how agency sits within structure (as she puts it, agency @ structure), and why some people are more mobile than others. What does distinguish migrants from stayers, the sedentary population which hitherto has been almost ignored by migration researchers? Why do some people experience upward occupational mobility and/or make a success of migration, where others fail? Clearly greater success and mobility depend on the possession of certain kinds of capital, but, as Grabowska shows, it would be too simple to reduce this to economic and social capital. In fact many stayers have the different types of capital which could create an opportunity structure for migration, and Polish migrants are fairly ← 11 | 12 → representative of Polish society in general. There must clearly be an additional, psychological dimension. Are stayers less competent and resourceful (Fomina and Frelak 2008), less confident (White and Ryan 2008) or perhaps less reflexive? Drawing on her own biographical interviews with Polish return migrants, Grabowska demonstrates that it is a capacity for reflexivity – the individual migrants’ ability to think clearly creatively about themselves in the situations in which migration throws them – which distinguishes the more from the less successful. Following on from this (in a fascinating chapter on skills, which is new for the English-language, 2016 edition, and draws on a range of recent research) Grabowska argues that ‘non-formal learning-by-observing, by-communicating and by-doing abroad’ always takes place during migration, even if some return migrants make better use of these skills than others.

Professor Anne White, University College London

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Introduction: Making the way through the world on the move

It is connected to whether you are flexible and you want to go for a change or not, this is the factor differentiating people who decide to go abroad from those who remain sedentary, recounted Lucjan, a 33 year old machine construction engineer from Cracow. He left Poland after graduation where he could not find a decent job and, in fact, his first serious job was by chance in the UK. Lucjan, like many other young Poles after 2004 EU enlargement, went to work abroad without earlier planning, just like that. His first job, getting his foot into the British labour market, was in a sausage factory. After his initial anchoring and getting a sense of some of the ‘rules of the game’ of the UK low-skilled work space, he started searching for new jobs but still below the level of his formal skills obtained at the technical university in Poland. But this time he made a plan and went to a recruitment agency where he received job advice and offers. He even decided on internal migration within the UK to undertake still rather manual jobs in a logistics company. He worked with commitment and very effectively, building his reputation in British workplaces. Supervisors quickly recognised his work efficiency and he felt that his work was getting appreciated. Even though, he insisted that his UK jobs were only for the money, he managed to build up self-confidence, some awareness of the world around him, linguistic skills. On returning to Poland he started applying a systematic strategy for job searching transferred from the UK. He was able to communicate and deal effectively with clients of a double glazing company in Cracow and also was finally able to use some of his technical skills.

Migration was not a part of my work plan. My work life is here, in this city. Simply I needed the money to have a better life here in Poland. Passions won’t feed you. (…) But I learned to be in an international environment and I got to know some German, reported 31 year old Olgierd, a local government administrator from a small town in the Opolskie Region in Poland, the son of a seasonal migrant father to Germany, working in Poland as a salesman, and with a mother who was a history teacher. He graduated from a political sciences program at the local higher education institution in Opole. The jobs he performed in local public institutions matched his formal skills. His first seasonal migration was during his studies. He worked in Germany and Austria many times during summer holidays on paid or unpaid annual leave from his institutions. He was happy about his work life, only the wages were too low, and this was what pushed him to continue his circular migration. ← 13 | 14 →

I postponed university in Poland and went to work in Ireland. It was meant to be short. But I got jobs in Ireland and so gave up Polish university. (…) After a while, I started university in Ireland, a branch of a Polish one because otherwise it would be too difficult. It went bust. So I did not graduate. (…) It was difficult to find new job with the financial crisis in Ireland (…) I came back to Poland [to a small town] with my partner who had two sons there. You need to have a degree here to work, even as a shop assistant. Maybe we will start our own business…a tattoo parlour… I have never done that before, narrated Daria, a 25 year old women from a small town in south-western Poland, who stayed in Ireland for seven years. She left Poland immediately after EU enlargement in May 2004. She was the daughter of an accountant and a builder. After her return to Poland she remained unemployed and undertook various courses offered by the local labour office. The most recent one was connected to interior design.

I have a feeling that I have never utilised things from my education for myself. I started working in Ireland in the most basic position in the grocery department of a supermarket. I did my job well. I got recognised by managers. Organisation of work, commitment, brought me to higher positions within retailing. In the end I become a floating manager between many stores in the company. But what is my career? Just selling, lamented Lucja, a 33 year old philosopher from Radom, a medium sized town in central Poland. She spent six years in Ireland, climbing systematically, linearly up the ladder of occupational positions in the Irish retail sector, achieving one of the highest positions there. She came back because she felt symptoms of a glass ceiling syndrome and at her last job she was robbed by a group of local thieves. On return she wanted to take up some jobs where she could use her formal educational skills but had no clue what to do. She considered further education, connected to self-development. She undertook a job in a big clothing store as a manager and started transferring skills she learned abroad.

I did not want to be like my friends who stayed in Poland. (…) They went for jobs in retailing and after few years they were burnt out. (…) Cleaning toilets in [UK] pubs I realised how difficult these dirty, routine jobs are. I respect now all people who are able to do that. I did my best. I was patient. There I started thinking that I need to do something with myself, to educate myself further, reflected Pola, a 33 year old sociologist and film specialist from Warsaw, daughter of highly educated parents. After conducting a series of manual routine jobs in the UK, she saved some money and applied for a scholarship connected to her hobby- film promotion, and not an initial education in social sciences. After the programme she had internships at British film institutions. She decided to return to Poland despite a window of opportunity in the British labour market because she felt that she had obtained skills which were in shortage in Poland and her work could make a difference. ← 14 | 15 →

I went abroad to work. I knew that we needed to leave my home town. Small, no opportunities. We came to Radom [a medium sized town in Poland]. I did not want to go to Warsaw. Too big. Everybody predicted that I wouldn’t find any job in Radom. I saw what was the biggest local factory. I went to the dairy. (…) I got a job immediately, recounted Cyryl, a 40 year old machine operator from a small mountain town in Poland. Cyryl always worked in manual, routine jobs. He was always well organised and had a life plan to extend his opportunities. But not too much because otherwise he would not be able to deal with it. Metropolises were always too much for him both to work in and to live. He had a particular skill ‘at dealing very well with the boredom of manual, routine jobs’. He was attentive to his work content and tasks and always wanted to see the sense of his work for the entire company. His migratory movements were gradual. When a recruitment company came to his mountain town, he did not want to be like the other peers people who initially were interested in going to work abroad but then withdrew from the recruitment procedure out of fear of the unknown. His first trip to Ireland to work was undertaken without his family. During his second visit his wife accompanied him temporarily. Their son was taken care by his grandmother for some time. After returning from Ireland he decided to make an internal move in Poland with the whole family to make his life plan complete which meant a stable job and decent living conditions. When asked about going to work abroad again, he replied I am open now. I am not scared at all. I know what it is. If I had to, I would go of course.

(…) I think that when you try to reach a goal, all failures contribute to your strength; so all my experiences – where I started, or where I was just before going on this internship abroad – all this brought me where I am now, reflected 27 year old Maria from a small town near Warsaw, a daughter of a local hair dresser and plumber. She always knew that she needed to work hard in order to achieve something in life. Because it was difficult to get a job as a young person without experience she decided to build hers up by embarking on her future career by internships. She developed her own gradual strategy. First she started at a local labour office in her home town. She thought then that a job in a public institution is everything that one could dream of in the labour market. Then she worked in a call centre where she learned how to communicate with clients. She was able to use this skill at a later stage in her career. Then she applied for an internship at an orchard land register. In the meantime she started studying international relations at one of the higher education institutions in Poland. She took advantage of her student position and went for a Socrates/Erasmus programme to Portugal. After Erasmus she worked there as a waitress and she learned how to deal with international, multi-cultural clients. Through the internship with the land register institution she got interested in real estate consulting and management. She knew ← 15 | 16 → that the way to get employed in such institutions is very difficult. She wanted to get in via an internship. She sent tailor-made emails to and Human Recourses departments of important real estate companies in Warsaw. Once she got into one, she took advantage of her student and intern position and went for a vocational Erasmus exchange to Belgium where she learnt how to introduce a new system which was just about to be applied on her return to Poland and also how to deal with clients – she made use of her earlier experience at the call centre and as a waitress in Portugal. After return she got a job there.

The accounts of the work histories of Lucjan, Olgierd, Daria, Lucja, Pola and Maria are like many others of migrating Poles after European Union (EU) enlargement in May 2004. They show that migration brings ambiguous meanings to work lives of people and with migratory experience people can somehow pave their way through the world on the move.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
Return migration Sedentary population Opportunity structure Occupational career
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 242 pp.

Biographical notes

Izabela Grabowska (Author)

Izabela Grabowska is a Professor at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw and an International Research Coordinator at the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw. She is also member of the Board of Directors, of the Executive Board of IMISCOE, and national expert of the European Commission for ESCO.


Title: Movers and Stayers: Social Mobility, Migration and Skills