The Precariat
March 4, 2012 11:57 AM   Subscribe

The 'precariat' "consists of a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life, millions being categorised as ‘disabled’ and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world".

As a term denoting those who live in precarious working conditions, on short/part-term contracts or at the peripheries of employment, the 'precariat' has been around for a couple of decades. The notion of a new class of people, perpetually perched on the very edge of economic and social insecurity, has recently received more coverage through the work of the economist Guy Standing. Although some have argued that his analysis is too pessimistic , it is clear that the 'flexible' globalised labour market and the changing nature of the social contract is having an impact on people's experiences of work across the globe.
posted by hydatius (27 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
...and The Precariad is an 18,000 line poem in ancient Greek recounting their plight.
posted by hippybear at 11:59 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

"The notion of a new class of people" is nothing new at all.
posted by Ardiril at 12:32 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The recession of the '80s transformed the working class into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to the third world, forcing American workers into the low-paying service and retail sector. The current recession is knocking the working poor down another notch - from low-wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:36 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

True, the notion of a new class of people is approximately as old as the notion of classes of people (which is to say, very old indeed).

As a rule, notions that stick around that long do so for a reason.
posted by lodurr at 12:46 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

That first linked article describes me to a pretty fine degree, though I think I've avoided fascist tendencies on the whole. It's nice to have a frame for my situation.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 12:52 PM on March 4, 2012

If only we had a "narrative of occupational development"! Then everything would be fine!
posted by RogerB at 12:55 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Me, I'm a caryatid.
posted by Nomyte at 1:10 PM on March 4, 2012

Yep, straight back to the 19th century. Good thing we threw out those lazy, mobster-controlled unions!
posted by anarch at 1:13 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

What exactly is new about this?

Does this writer seriously think that job insecurity was something invented in the 1990s?

The old-timers who lined up every morning at the Brooklyn waterfront for a few hours of work could tell him a thing or two about short-term jobs, and a lack of a narrative of job development.
posted by jason's_planet at 1:26 PM on March 4, 2012

People who don't appreciate that this particular kind of job insecurity is new are showing their age, or weren't paying attention when they grew up.

Anyway, the argument isn't so much that the larger phenomenon is historically new, so much as that we used to think it was a fine goal to move away from this, and now we're pretty much all accepting that this is not just how things work, but that it's right that they work that way.

This isn't really about whether it's new or not, in other words - it's about our attitude toward it.

Personally I find that depressing.

On the other hand, since only about a third of my work life has been in "full time permanent" jobs, and most of those were at what would barely qualify as a 'living wage', I've been a member of the Precariat for my entire adult life.
posted by lodurr at 1:31 PM on March 4, 2012 [9 favorites]

Didn't Marx call this class the "lumpen proletariat"?
posted by telstar at 1:46 PM on March 4, 2012

posted by lodurr at 1:52 PM on March 4, 2012

> What exactly is new about this?

It isn't new for people who live in third-world countries.

However, if you live in the West, then yes, this is new.

In my parent's generation, you could get a job as an autoworker right out of high school, and if you were a good worker, you could support a non-working wife, buy a house and put your kids through university.

Moreover, for well over a century there were all sorts of gentile jobs for intellectuals, like working in bookstores, record stores, accounting or some other form of "pushing paper". These weren't great jobs for the time, you never got rich, but you got by, you didn't have to kill yourself - you could have a decent life and time to yourself.

Even working as a clerk in a store, you had stability.

Now, many of these jobs are dwindling; accounting loses out to TurboTax, bookstores to Amazon. In the jobs that are left, you have no security, no benefits, no hope of advancement - it's likely that both people in a marriage have to work even to keep just where they are.

Heck, when I first came to New York you could actually support yourself as a musician by playing gigs in bars in the city. (Yes, DJs still do that - but one person is replacing a five piece band and a sound guy...)

It's a different world entirely now - and a much more cruel one.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:21 PM on March 4, 2012 [23 favorites]

I saw Guy Standing speak last spring and I've read part of his book. I would highly recommend giving this article a through read, if not his book.

For those of you wondering how this is different from the traditional idea of the proletariat, his argument is that "precariat" workers lack the traditional leverage the proletariat has used to improve their situation or the protections they have gained. The most obvious example is migrant labor, because migrants lack the rights and protections of citizenship. The threat of deportation makes organizing and asserting other rights extremely hard. But precariousness goes further than that, into other ways business has figured out to get around social protections. (dividing up the production process, short term contracts, etc...).
posted by ropeladder at 2:24 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

> Didn't Marx call this class the "lumpen proletariat"?

Quite different. He was referring to uneducated people, people who'd basically dropped out of society, specifically people who'd never be able to grasp Socialism: "swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society".

This article is talking about people who, a generation ago, would have been middle class... people with some degree of education, enough initiative to actually be able to acquire skills on their own, the people who should be the engine of prosperity for this country, all reduced to desperate scrabbling.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:25 PM on March 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

The Esme Choonara article from the FPP — "Is there a precariat?" — is really much better than the Standing. It argues (quite convincingly, to me) that the notion the precarious are a different "class" from other workers is both factually wrong and politically counterproductive:
The notion that "precarious" workers form a distinct and separate group suggests that they have separate interests from other workers. This relies on the idea that there is a group of non-precarious, secure employees who are privileged over the precariat. Guy Standing calls this group the "salariat" - those who have secure employment, sick pay and pensions and are often employed by the state. This is a treacherous argument, echoing the complaints of Tories about "gold-plated" public sector pensions.

And the suggestion that there is a fundamental divide between precarious and non-precarious workers is nonsense. For a start there is no permanent divide between the two sectors: many workers will have part-time or fixed-term temporary work at some time and permanent contracts at other points in their lives. And in a recession, as we have seen with the swingeing cuts to public services, all workers can find themselves in a more or less precarious position.
posted by RogerB at 2:45 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

"the suggestion that there is a fundamental divide between precarious and non-precarious workers is nonsense"

While I agree that ultimately they shouldn't be fighting over the same small, dwindling piece of the pie, I think the conflict between salaried and precarious workers that Standing identifies is very real and shouldn't be ignored.
posted by ropeladder at 3:13 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

The concerns of many of the salaried workers at my most recent precarious position included: in which of the next several years to retire, the cost of all inclusive vacations, and what type of mortgage to get at renewal time. These differ from my own, which included: is it feasible to start a two year training program at my age, or is it a better idea to use my very modest 'retirement' savings to live for a couple of years with shelter before becoming homeless.

Again, the notion of the precariat describes my situation well, and delineates some useful differences between my own, and my colleague's life experience. This descriptor helps deal with the cognitive (and social) dissonance between myself and those who are more firmly established, and with whom I otherwise have quite a bit in common with.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 3:33 PM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

The distinction between salaried and precariat workers is simply this: the salaried don't understand how precarious their position is, and the precariat do.
posted by lodurr at 4:56 PM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'd say there was about two generations, maybe three, in America, where people understood the norm to be that you worked hard at one or two jobs your whole career, retired, and etc. I don't think that was actually seen as the norm until the late '40s at the earliest, and I think that was over by the early '80s, but the idea hung on. So in that sense, it's new; in a longer-term sense, it can be seen as a return to earlier norms.

nevertheless, I do feel there's something new about this in that, as I've said, it comes along with the sense that we ought to accept it as a status quo, that we're somehow naive to expect more or better.
posted by lodurr at 5:00 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

as far as the conflict between the "salariat" and the precariat, it can be both real and dangerous to talk about. systems that work against the interest of their participants often continue by means of pitting subclasses against one another, and that looks like the case, here. So Standing's and Choonara's arguments can be seen as going past one another; they might well agree wholeheartedly if they were in the same room.
posted by lodurr at 5:04 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I generally agree with Lodurr -- that we may be seeing a reversion, rather than an innovation, in the degree of tenure typical in non-elite labor.

Our new precarious workforce differs from the old in important respects.

First, it needs wages less and can accordingly absorb underemployment and unemployment far better. Welfare abounds that never did before the 1940s. The basic elements of subsistence -- food, clothes, warmth -- are vastly cheaper relative to incomes; out of pocket costs of housing are a bit more expensive in real terms in some places, but not nearly to the same extent. Things that are far more expensive in real terms -- income taxes, healthcare and education -- are things the poor (or the precarious on a downstream) simply don't purchase for cash.

Second, the default structure of families with children was a husband working outside the home and a wife working (and creating significant economic value) inside the home -- this structure is the minority case overall and is even less common among the precarious. Some people (e.g. Elizabeth Warren in pre-ideologue days) have argued that this change makes things more precarious; I'm not sure I agree.

Third, before the 1940s it was easy and cheap to create new jobs, because there was no minimum wage; very little in the way of tax, insurance or regulatory obstacles to job creation; and for the vast majority of economic production, no "offshore" to go do for wages that were lower by orders of magnitude. Not sure how this cuts.
posted by MattD at 5:28 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Standing's analysis is depressing indeed. It applies to my own precarious situation, as well as that of most of my peers.

I'm 44, single, no kids, white, middle-class background, smart, articulate, well-read, and highly educated (two baccalaureate degrees and a post-bac certificate.) I'm financially savvy and tech-savvy, with 20+ years of work experience including web coding, freelance writing, tax preparation, teaching assistantship, and office support.

For over two years now I have been job-hunting and networking diligently, and there seems to be no end in sight. Even the temp agencies aren't interested. There just plain aren't enough jobs to go around, no matter how qualified one may be. (And don't get me started on how demoralizing job-hunting can be. Craigslist scams, credit checks, drug tests, background checks, web application forms that force you into Hobson's choice situations...all for a chance at a minimum-wage job with no benefits, no vacation, mandatory overtime, and abysmal working conditions.)

Having exhausted my savings, I am now living on food stamps and occupying a family-owned studio condo. Without that assistance from the state and my family, I would be couch-surfing or homeless right now. This, despite years of education, careful planning, frugality, wise investing, saving, etc., and doing everything "right". My situation was greatly exacerbated by my duplicitous ex's decision to abscond with a huge chunk of my money, but in any case, I'm barely scraping by and I can't even afford the legal costs to pursue my ex for his debt to me. Health insurance? I qualify for my state's low-income health care plan, but there is a long waiting list and I've been on it for over a year now. I'm on the "better not get sick" plan.

And compared to many of my peers, I'm very fortunate, because I have family who will take me in, if it comes to that.

I am still job-hunting, while also trying to write a book (a critique of the role of waged work in our culture, especially its function as most people's sole means of access to food, clothing, and health care). If my situation doesn't turn around soon, I will be forced to move back in with my mother and stepfather, who are in their 70s. I'm extremely grateful that they are in relatively good health, because neither my brother (who is 39, single, and works in a bakery earning $11/hour) nor I could afford to support them if they needed it. My stepfather got a job at 18 and held that same job until retirement. He has no idea how bad it is out there now.

From Guy Standing's article (bold emphasis mine):
The only way to provide sufficient economic security is to do so ex ante, through providing every legal resident in society with a basic income as a right. [...] Critics have screamed that it is unaffordable, would reward idleness and slow economic growth. We may soon find that we cannot afford not to have it. The idea that every person should receive a modest monthly payment is gathering legitimacy. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is doing so fastest in middle-income market economies.
Okay, precariat, let's get moving on this.
posted by velvet winter at 6:49 PM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's also interesting to compare how much a certain segment of our economy is dependent on part time workers who are not supposed to demand better conditions because it's a student job. It feels like the debt (or parental housing) subsidized college jobs became a reality, then stopped being enough to pay for many students to study and work simultaneously, and suffered no push from labour because students would simply accept a poor salary and conditions as their due (at least they're flexible, it's only part time!), before sliding into being the only game in town for non-students.
posted by Phalene at 6:57 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Welfare abounds...

Yeah, the US social services net is just a cornucopia of plenty.

The scary thing is that we're a first world nation among other first world nations. What's going to happen at home and abroad in the next 20 years?

I heard someone refer to the "golden age of the union" the other day.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:42 PM on March 4, 2012

It's not a universal, but the union in the situation I described above was more inclined to support the interests of the permanent workers than those who were less established. The president of the local begged off of my concerns because '[he] doesn't really get into that political stuff, man'. Simply having a union is only a beginning.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 9:41 PM on March 4, 2012

Bernard Marszalek has some interesting comments on another recent article by Guy Standing on the precariat.
posted by velvet winter at 9:58 AM on March 5, 2012

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