Purpose This paper analyses how the employment histories of cohorts born after World War II in Germany have changed. A specific focus is on the role of atypical employment in this context. Design/methodology/approach This paper uses data from the adult cohort of the National Educational Panel Study and presents descriptive evidence on employment patterns for different cohorts. In addition, a sequence analysis of employment trajectories illustrates key aspects related to the opportunities and risks of atypical employment. Findings Younger cohorts are characterised by acquiring more education, by entering into employment at a higher age and by experiencing atypical employment more often. The latter is associated with much higher employment of women for younger cohorts. The sequence analysis reveals that the proportion of individuals whose entry into the labour market is almost exclusively characterised by atypical employment rises significantly across the cohorts. Moreover, a substantial part of the increase in atypical employment is due to the increased participation of women, with part-time jobs or mini-jobs playing an important role in re-entering the labour market after career breaks. Originality/value The most important contribution of this article to the existing literature lies in the life course perspective taken for different birth cohorts. The findings are of great interest to the general debate about the success of the German labour market in recent decades and its implications for individual labour-market histories, but also about rising income inequality at about the same time.