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

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14 Responses to The New Precariat and Electoral Politics

  1. Pingback: Paying Attention to the Precariat | Working-Class Perspectives

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  4. Pingback: More (Bad) Jobs: The Unexpected Consequences of the ACA | Working-Class Perspectives

  5. Joslyn B says:

    What is the true definition of percariat? Does it classify the middle-class or the poor? I feel that the economy is pretty bad based off of jobs, educaiton, and the taxes we pay. I feel that the upper class gets favored more than the precariat, when the precariat works harder for what they have in life. However, I do believe we’re living in a precariat society today because no one wants to work hard nor have the drive to work for what they want in life. I do believe that every vote counts though and that we do need to vote to get the “NEW PRECARIAT”.


  6. Taylor Clark says:

    I agree that the cost of living in Youngstown, Ohio is very affordable compared to other places in the United States. And in the state of the current economy, I feel that this is why many people in this area are still able to be comfortable with their current state of life. I feel that the majority of people in the surrounding areas of Youngstown, OH are a part of the working middle class. If we were in other areas of the United States, I feel that the working middle class is struggling much more than we are at this time. I also feel that the generation I am growing up in is much different than that of my mother and father. They feel that my generation is not at nearly hard working as theirs. I think that is it very important for people of my generation to learn what the future has in store after their college years, follow the presidential candidates ideals and debates, and be sure that their voice is heard in the 2012 presidential election.


  7. Ja'Lyn R says:

    The New Precariat, the old Precariat, we are all working to survive. Yes, I agree that Youngstown’s cost of living is much more affordable than any other city, causing many citizens to be comfortable with their living conditions. Many are okay with getting public assistance, working small jobs, and “getting by” until next month’s bills arrive. They are without the desire and ambition to do better for themselves because of what they are used to. Many do not even have a savings account, care to purchase their own home, or obtain an education. There is no desire to work hard to achieve goals to create a better life. They are comfortable where they are at. Hopefully this generation will get out and vote right!


  8. Vinny Gutierrez says:

    The working middle class is huge in Youngstown, without a working middle class the city of Youngstown will literally collapse. Depending on who wins this presidential election depends in Youngstown. I believe with the election of Barack Obama Youngstown will revive to why we were!


  9. Terri Kasza says:

    Just becaouse people cant find steady work or well paying work, dosent mean that they are in a class all there just means there just isnt enough work out there..people in our generation simply have to take what we can and make due with what we got..i dont feel that some change in how people get by makes it a class in the makeing.


  10. Olivia says:

    I always felt that there was another economic class between middle class and the lower class. Does this precariat group consist of those who work and make too much money to receive money from the government? As a college student who does not qualify for a great amount of loans, works two jobs, goes to school full time, and does not qualify for government assistance I feel I fall in this Precariat class. I also believe that those in the Precariat “class” are most likely to vote and vote for the same person. Though, as I continued to read I saw that the definition consistently changes so how can we be sure what class we fall in? I also believe that those who fall in the Precariat group will vote for what benefits them and it seems as though they will have the same needs. The Precariats will have different needs than those of the middle class and the socioeconomic class below them. I agree with Stephanie Woon when she said the Precariats will vote for what can benefit themselves and not what can benefit the nation as a whole.


  11. Not really sure if I followed this…for me it was unclear exactly who the new precariat is. So I don’t know if it involves me or not. Politics confuses me greatly and I don’t feel we can really rely on anyone at this point in time.


  12. Stephanie Woon says:

    What really is a precariat? According to The Precariat the new dangerous class the definition changes all the time and one point even suggested that it included the homosexual community. Because the definition switches so much I do not feel we can determine the “precariat’s” pollitical view. I feel that economically we are doing so bad that if we are not part of the upper class we pretty much all fit the category of precariat and it is pretty much every man for him or herself. I feel that the lower class has more things handed to them and I feel the precariat group’s vote will be based on whatever can benefit them individually instead of economic aspiration. In general I feel that anybody votes to what can benefit them, not everyone else and them. I do believe the precariats will determine the president election of 2012 and the future only because there is more of them now, and things aren’t so hot right now. People are barely making ends meet and they want change.


  13. Fred Anderson says:

    A very thought provoking column. Good work!

    I wonder if the anti-materialism might not be mere psychological self-defense / rationalization: “I did not achieve material things, so either they are desirable and I am unworthy, or they are of false value and I am wise to see that.” (Or as the fox said of the high-hanging grapes, “They’re probably sour, anyhow.”)

    There is probably a plentiful history of poor and anti-materialistic youth who grow up to become successful and very materialistic adults. Consider for example the many Baby Boomers who were idealistic youth in the ’60’s and the “living large” 5-bedroom, 3-car-garage suburbanites of today. (And the “Don’t touch my Medicare” types of tomorrow.)


  14. Pingback: The new precariat | Suburban Guerrilla

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