Tag Archives: precariat

Paying Attention to the Precariat

As I wrote in October 2012, the precariat – the growing class of insecure workers whose wages and working conditions do not provide economic stability – ought to be getting more attention in American political discourse. I have urged mainstream journalists covering labor issues to use the term, which is increasingly being used in Europe.  Several reporters have told me that they don’t use precariat because readers would not understand it.  Writers think it’s clearer to refer to this group as the underclass or chronically unemployed. Of course, proletariat is verboten for mainstream journalists.

But last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks broke the pattern. In “The American Precariat,” Brooks tries to explain why Americans, who used to be willing to move in order to improve their economic position, are increasingly likely to stay put, even when that means passing up potential jobs.  According to Brooks, some people are trapped by homes that are underwater and workers have little incentive to move, since labor markets are pretty much the same everywhere, a change from the past, when different regions offered distinct opportunities.

But Brooks also suggests that the major reason Americans are staying in place both geographically and economically is a “lack of self-confidence.” Few workers today are willing to risk “the temporary expense and hardship [of moving] because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward.” Brooks also sees evidence that Americans lack self-confidence in declining fertility rates and in more people staying in the jobs they have rather than voluntarily leaving to look for something better.  He also cites evidence from opinion polls showing that an all time low of only 46 percent of Americans report that they expect their economic condition to improve.  “American exceptionalism,” he writes, “is basically gone.”

All of this leads Brooks to the idea of the precariat, “a concept that has been floating around Europe” for which he cites British scholar Guy Standing. Brooks sees Americans embracing an “uncharacteristic” fatalism, something we’d expect to see in Europe, but not here.

More conservative commentators and think tanks should pay attention to the American precariat. Clearly, the growing number of individuals who lack employment security, job security, income security, skill security, occupational security, and labor market security are threat to conservative benefactors. Among other things, the precariat is long past believing conservative promises, like trickle-down economics or the idea that having five jobs by the time they’re 35 gives young workers flexibility and opportunity.

But like Brooks, most conservatives would rather talk about how individuals lack self-confidence than address the real economic challenges facing many Americans today.  Rather than offering substantive policies, some conservatives suggest that moving vouchers would help poor people pursue opportunities (an approach that would also reduce the kind of the concentration of insecure workers that led to Occupy Wall Street). Their analysis ignores how Wall Street and global corporations have changed work practices and benefit structures, stigmatized the unemployed, and championed the loss of public assistance. Moving vouchers and appeals to self-confidence won’t prevent the precariat’s growing resentment toward the 1% and their apparatchiks.

Like journalists, the academic community has been slow to join the discussion of precarity. A few institutions have hosted Guy Standing as a visiting scholar, and some scholars have organized panels on the topic at disciplinary conferences. But two upcoming conferences suggest growing interest among academics. At Georgetown University, the Lannan Symposium Living in a Precarious World will feature writers, scholars, workers, and activists discussing questions such as “How does the struggle to get by shape our lives, our relationships, and our social institutions? How do we challenge the rise of precarity, and what, if anything, does it offer as the basis for resistance?”  Yale University will host a conference in April on the Conditions of Precarity: Life Work, and Culture, focused on how the humanities can provide “the space to describe current phenomena of precarity, situate what is new in the context of a long tradition of human experience and critically engage with this tradition.”  Both events take an interdisciplinary approach, linking the humanities with political and economic analysis. The Georgetown conference also goes beyond academic talk about precarity.  Its opening panel will include adjunct faculty, low-wage workers, and activists organizing in both the formal and informal economy.

Interdisciplinary analysis of precarity should be expanded beyond elite universities, but academics must do more than talk about precarity.  They should also study and collaborate with community and labor groups like the Excluded Worker Movement that is organizing the precariat, including millions of farmworkers, domestic workers, tipped workers, guest workers, and day laborers. It collaborates with other organizations on campaigns to win immediate improvements in the conditions facing excluded workers; to strengthen and expand the labor movement; and to develop a new framework to transform and expand workers rights to organize in the 21st century. Journalists should be covering these efforts, and academics should be studying them and joining them.

In a world in which we are all increasingly expendable and insecure, we need to join forces. The precariat will not be fooled into blaming themselves for lacking self-confidence. If David Brooks does not believe this, he should notice the empty desks in his newsroom.  Better yet, go talk with the many displaced reporters who cannot find work as journalists and have become part of the precariat.

John Russo

The New Precariat and Electoral Politics

During the Presidential campaign, Americans have heard endless discussions about unemployment. But neither candidate has said much, at least not directly, about precarious employment or about the new precariat – that growing group (some would even say the growing class) of workers in temporary, part-time, and/or contingent work that often doesn’t pay a living wage.

Who is the precariat? According to Guy Standing, the author of The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class, all of us could be.  For now, the precariat involves largely women, the young, the disabled, retirees forced back to work, former prisoners, and migrants. It also includes large numbers of formerly middle-class professionals, skilled and semi-skilled people who have been displaced by economic change. While each of these groups has gotten some attention, Standing argues that as a group, the precariat is still “a class in the making,” united by an overwhelming sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

The growth of the precariat has its roots in globalization and technological change, which flooded flexible labor markets and advanced international divisions of labor.  These conditions coincided with changes in government regulation, corporate restructuring, reduced access to and distribution of social programs, and the creation of coercive social policies such as workfare, mass incarceration, and means testing.

Historically, precarious employment was associated with the informal economy.  But with economic changes in the last several decades, informality has moved beyond traditional practices of black market exchanges or services such as day care or tutoring. As workers have been displaced from the formal economy, many are turning to consulting, internships, and subcontracting to find contingent and intermittent work. In general, more and more people are involved in unregulated work characterized by irregular employment, short job ladders, substandard wages and working conditions, and increased stigmatization. During the current economic crisis, with declining standards of living and loss of public assistance, the new precariat – like the old precariat — survives by working longer hours, holding multiple jobs, and when possible relying on the kindness and generosity of friends and family.

While the growth of the precariat creates real social and economic challenges for workers in the informal economy, in places like Youngstown, where the cost of living is low, some mostly younger adults are making a virtue of the situation. As cultural anthropologist Hannah Woodroofe has argued, Youngstown is becoming home to increasing numbers of highly individualistic, anti-materialistic, entrepreneurial adults with episodic employment in largely deregulated work environments. While some define themselves as entrepreneurs, many also see their rejection of materialism as providing a measure of freedom and dignity that challenged capitalist and “older parental” values surrounding work.

Their economic conditions are anemic and often do not reflect their education and experience (many have college and even graduate degrees). They don’t earn much and have little savings, health care, or pension benefits. Their work experiences and the difficulties they’ve had in finding jobs in the formal economy have reduced their expectations about the future.  They have internalized their economic insecurity, and their personal lives tend to mirror their work lives, with contingent and episodic relationships and living situations. Many embrace sustainability and green values, starting urban farms or homesteading in abandoned houses.  Others are part of a contingent creative class, doing freelance work in the arts, web development, and education, but because of the precarity of their work, they don’t make the kinds of stabilizing contributions to the local economy that Richard Florida predicted.  Some just want to be left alone, comfortable with their inexpensive lifestyles.

Just how big is the new precariat? It’s difficult to measure, but the Federal Reserve Board of Cleveland suggests that the ‘Great Recession’ has resulted in increases in self-employment, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 35 million people work part time.  While the data on how many people have precarious employment is far from definitive, the precariat clearly seems to be large and growing.

That suggests that the new precariat could have a significant impact on the election. Most of them don’t believe that the government or other institutions can do much to ameliorate their situation.  Many consider themselves to be small business people. As Arun Gupta and Michelle Fawcett have suggested, “Republicans have turned small business into a catch-all group the way ‘working class’ once served that function for the left.” That suggests that the precariat may be persuaded by campaign rhetoric about taxes and economic development.  On the other hand, many see themselves as anti-capitalist, committed to green values and social justice. So will they vote like those who share their educational backgrounds, who are more likely to be politically independent and have socially progressive leanings, thus revealing themselves to be the fallen faction of the middle class?  Or do they, like much of the old white working class, vote on the basis of economic aspiration?  Or does the precariat now include so many Americans, from diverse backgrounds and in varied situations, that their political views can’t be easily predicted?  In 2012 in states like Ohio, the new precariat could determine the presidential election and America’s future.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies