The Precariat: What is it, and why does it matter?

The ‘Precariat’, a term first coined by economist Guy Standing, refers to an emerging, multi-dimensional class in society, forced into an unstable relationship with employment. People who, through no fault of their own, but as a by-product of the global capitalist system painfully birthed into the 21st Century, cannot obtain secure work.

The Precariat itself is truncated and flexible, imperfectly defined, but loosely encompassing an increasing number of people. The first class in history to be systematically losing its rights. Why this matters goes beyond simple human decency, as the result is growing political disaffection, and anger.

More than any other class, the Precariat has suffered during the COVID-era lockdowns. In the UK, many temporary workers, or those reliant upon ‘zero-hour’ contracts, constituting the ‘Precariat’, were ineligible for furlough scheme support. In the US, many families have been forced to survive largely on a single $1200 stimulus package in March. Only in late December was another stimulus deal reached.

Different employment sectors have also been disproportionately impacted by lockdowns. Whilst the tech industry has unsurprisingly fared very profitably, hospitality has struggled, with few signs for optimism in the future. I explored the full damage this has caused in a previous post, whilst levying the accusation it resembled a new prohibition.

As of 2016, over 7 million Britons were reportedly in precarious employment, equating to roughly one in five of the available work-force. The previous decade had witnessed a rise in 2 million temporary, or zero-hour contracts offered by businesses. Agencies matching this demand contribute thousands of temporary workers to a number of different businesses, like Argos, Tesco, and Sainsbury’s, treating them as disposable, to be potentially fired without a moment’s notice.

This possibility becomes increasingly likely in periods of national uncertainty, like the aftermath of Brexit. As of writing, details of the deal have yet to fully emerge.

Naturally, this shift towards unstable labour has primarily impacted young adults.

This trend, as Standing explains in his first book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, arose from economic measures introduced in the 1980’s. Designed to increase labour market flexibility, and taken as a necessity to maintain jobs and investments, corporations were delivered the costless ability to alter employment levels at will. The result transferred the onus of insecurity onto the workers.

Subsequently, the ‘proletariat’, understood in the traditional Marxist sense, is shrinking, alongside the ‘salariat’, undercut by the growing Precariat. As mentioned before, the latter is an internally fractured class, and, as Standing projected, a ‘political monster’.

Standing is a fantastic writer and orator – his Ted talk speaks volumes of truth

“The ‘Precariatised Mind’: You don’t know what is the best thing to be doing with your time… You’re constantly faced with uncertainty… Always on the edge of unsustainable debt… systematically losing the great rights… they don’t see, in the political spectrum, parties or politicians who represent their interests”

Standing

For many people, this appears to reflect the new reality of existence.

The newly globalised market of the 21st Century has detracted from the value of labour. Just as during the Industrial Revolution, mechanisation and technological advancements in the workplace have rendered certain jobs obsolete.

There has been a recent and steady decline in the number of well-paid, skilled, standard jobs in manufacturing industry, for example, coupled with the stagnation or reduction of real wages, and a greater reliance on those actual wages, no longer receiving additional benefits like paid holiday.

Consequently, we have witnessed a surge in people habituated to unstable patterns of work-for-labour. In the desperate battle to obtain work, the Precariat is forced into compulsory, unpaid voluntary ‘labour’, but would not succeed without it. This can involve retraining, networking, refining CVs, filling out forms – consuming their time, for no actual advancement, since people can often only access jobs below their qualifications, leading to frustration.

It has often been to the detriment of young people. The majority of my generation likely fits into what Standing describes as ‘Progressives’ within the Precariat – educated, qualified individuals promised opportunities and careers, finding themselves disillusioned. This category is characterised by anger. There’s an unspoken acknowledgement that we must be vastly overqualified for any job, at even an entry level, whilst future qualifications will not improve job prospects.

All against the backdrop of an expanding plutocracy of multi-billionaires garnering absurd levels of finance and power.

Alone, Jeff Bezos’ net worth ranks him just outside the top 50 richest nations in the world. In coalition with Bill Gates and Elon Musk, those three would crack the top 25. Richest. Countries.

Let’s explore the relationship between Amazon President Bezos and his employees. During the pandemic, Bezos almost doubled his net worth, increasing from $113 billion to $203 billion as of October 13th. Which he isn’t required to pay tax on. As of September 2020, Amazon employed around 1,125,300, with warehouse workers earning just under £13/hour. From just his pandemic earnings, Bezos could give every worker an £80,000 bonus and be no poorer than nine months ago.

But many are not salaried workers, and shifts are not guaranteed. They are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis, being the responsibility of workers to obtain available employment. Additionally, workers are subjected to incredibly poor conditions. Warehouse workers might be expected to maintain packaging rates of up to 700 items each hour, equated to one every five seconds. Monitored by an algorithm, they can be fired for falling behind two or three times. Managers reportedly ignore medical dispensations, and allow only two, 15 minute breaks each shift.

This largely fits with employers’ expectations of the Precariat – high demand for their personal responsibility, without the corresponding monetary benefits.

Sociologist Tracy Shildrick has explored the rise in people who are unemployed. It is rarely by their own volition, despite perpetuating, negative stereotypes of ‘benefit thieves’. Instead, most people are suffering a cycle of low-pay/no-pay labour, forcing them into poor work which doesn’t represent a stepping-stone into more profitable work with more security in the future.

It is not a result of poor attitude. In fact, most of the people Shildrick surveyed demonstrated keen affection for work and a desire for employment, even where they calculated that living off benefits would be more profitable. The system prevents the Precariat from accessing stable work or careers.

This trend could be politically dangerous. Standing’s first book, in 2011, hailed the coming of a new ‘political monster’, which he later recognised seemed to have come into fruition. He explains:

“Part of the Precariat are “Atavists.” Having fallen from working-class communities, they feel they have a lost past. This group is relatively uneducated and listens to sirens of neo-fascist populism. They vote for Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, Brexit and the far right in Germany, Italy and elsewhere.”

Whether knowingly or otherwise, membership in the Precariat leads to frustration and disillusionment. It leads to a detachment from the state, from the identity of employment, from their sense of status. People define themselves by their careers, leaving the Precariat with nothing.

Insecure people vote emotionally and are more susceptible to fear-mongering claims. The ‘fake news’ cycle speaks to them, justifying their anger at something they can’t otherwise explain. They wilfully ignore rationality in favour of hatred directed towards perceived opponents.

Ken Loach’s social documentary, Sorry We Missed You, offers a brilliant exploration of the strains of this new lifestyle. His comments from the interview below resonate with the topics I have discussed here:

This post isn’t designed as an accusation, merely an assessment of what I regard as an unnatural state of affairs. Personally, I believe the existence of billionaires is inherently wrong, when so many people are struggling just to get by.

“Creating a good society is what all of us should do, however tiny our contribution might be”


Thanks for reading! I regularly post a mixture of short stories, travel posts, and contemporary commentaries like this one.

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Further reading:

Standing, G., The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London, 2011).

Shildrick, T., [et al] Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-Pay, No-Pay Britain (Bristol, 2012).

Standing: https://www.euronews.com/2018/05/01/who-are-the-precariat-and-why-they-threaten-our-society-view

Booth: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/15/more-than-7m-britons-in-precarious-employment

Sainato: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/feb/05/amazon-workers-protest-unsafe-grueling-conditions-warehouse

10 thoughts on “The Precariat: What is it, and why does it matter?

Add yours

  1. I haven’t heard of the Precariat before, but there are lots of people who are in that position. This is definitely big for those in “non-essential” retail and hospitality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This year especially has shown how vulnerable certain jobs are, and so many people have been forced to survive with limited employment. Thanks for reading!

      Like

  2. This was really interesting and definitely is something that is reflected in the U.S. as every state here is under at-will-employment. This basically means you can be fired for no reason (and no reason needed to be provided) and without warning. Even though there are laws that mean you cannot be fired for becoming ill or other circumstances out of your control, the at-will element provides cover for that sometimes — not to mention you then lose your health insurance too if it comes through your employer. It’s an awful system to be under and creates fear that suffering. This was a great read — thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that actually sounds terrifying. I’m kind of aware of how privatised health care in the US has made it very exclusive, but the idea that you could be fired for falling ill and left with no way to pay for your care is awful. Thanks for reading, I’m glad you found it interesting

      Like

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