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

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11 Responses to Paying Attention to the Precariat

  1. Pingback: Trump, Sanders, and the Precariat | Working-Class Perspectives

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  5. Jack Labusch says:

    American reporters ought to give UK professor Guy Standing’s “precariat” a chance. Read his stuff. Decide for yourselves.

    Libertarian purists may flinch, but genuine conservatives may recognize the echo of Ecclesiastes in Standing’s view, as I read him, that the connection between income (and, inferentially, consumption) and merit (e.g., job skills, productivity, virtue, etc.) isn’t all that clear in a mucked-up, non-libertarian world.

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  6. Jack Labusch says:

    “Several reporters have told me they don’t use ‘precariat’ because readers wouldn’t understand it”.

    Reporters writing health care stories routinely use words–“insured”, “uninsured”, “underserved”, “employment-based”, etc.–whose meanings, I think, are mistakenly assumed by reporters to be clearly self-evident to themselves and readers. They’ve overlooked how radically destructive the Rorem-Kimball template (I. e., group health insurance) actually is. Too late now.

    Maybe journalists ought to give “precariat” a chance if it describes a phenomenon better than “chronically unemployed” or “underclass”.

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  7. I love the way academics think about these problems. They seem to think that inventing a new term somehow sheds light on the problem. I am quite certain that an “interdisciplinary analyses of precarity” will not improve the daily life of the precariat. It may, however, create more jobs for academics as they banter this new phrase around and talk about the underclass in our society as though they are observing some exotic creature extracted from the jungle.
    Get a grip. Someone who is living on the fringe of poverty cannot afford to move for a marginal job that may be temporary. Such families develop a network of support for day care, car repair, food, and shelter that allows them to make it from day to day. Moving to a new community is an unknown, and when you have limited resources you can’t afford to make a mistake.
    I am troubled by the tendency to blame the condition of the impoverished on some sort of personality flaw. Lack of self confidence. Do I really need to explain this to you?
    I am encouraged by the efforts of organizations like the Excluded Worker Movement. We need new vehicles for change, not new terminology.or interdisciplinary analysis.

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    • Wendell Ricketts says:

      I’m not sure I’d classify David Brooks as an “academic,” but I am sure that very little is served by continuing to preserve and deploy these Cold War-esque distinctions between “academics” and “real people.” Maybe you’d get more party-line mileage out of calling him an “intellectual” or a member of the “media elite.” And, while it is true that some of the people who are being enfolded into this new description of the “precariat” are in poverty, it’s also true that the issues you raise (impossibility of mobility, even if there were some reason to think a move would make things better) are, so to speak, perennial in the condition of near-poverty that you describe. What may be new is the degree to which those fears and those realities have become daily life for a much vaster swath of the so-called working class who are not, in fact, the “underclass.” Meanwhile, if bandying around the word “precariat” would create a job for me, I’d bandy in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, that’s just more cant.

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  8. Jacob Richter says:

    “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.”

    If Japanese academics are in attendance, I think they owe everyone else a damn good explanation as to why the path of their country’s “freeters” organizing into its separate political party isn’t being considered as a discussion topic. The same goes for British academics with respect to “emergent service workers,” the real British precariat (not the definition given by British Sociology).

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  9. Jeff Allred says:

    Reblogged this on art/work: labor and lit in the US, 1900-present and commented:
    Thanks to Ruth for alerting me to this post on the “precariat,” the “growing class of insecure workers whose wages and working conditions do not provide economic stability.” This growing “precariat” is in strong contrast to the workers in Swados’s novel, who enjoyed a level of job security unsurpassed before or since (in the US at least).

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  10. Wendell Ricketts says:

    I kind of hate the awkwardness of the neologism — though I don’t know a better term — but it’s exactly the right concept. It’s seems worth saying, though, that it’s not exactly new. Back in the 1980s, American courts began assiduously dismantling the entire notion of work that my parents’ generation knew in favor of “at will” employment, which quickly became very nearly 100% of American work. Speaking of Europe and “precariat,” the term in Italy has long been “lavoro precario” (literally, “precarious work,” but meaning, basically, temporary, short-term jobs with no employment protections, no benefits, no pension, and low wages).It’s viewed as a national problem whose most serious affects are not merely economic, but the degree to which they have conditioned a worldview for nearly two generations of Italians, delaying marriage, reducing the number of offspring, separating families whose members must move to other towns or even abroad to find work, keeping children at home well into their 40s, increasing dependence upon grandparents’ pensions to support the family, and so forth. The transformation of a work force used to long-term contracts and decent pensions into the “precariato” was specifically intended as a sop to business interests, whose labor costs essentially decreased by 2/3 in one fell swoop. The “work problem” is one of the favorite topics of Italian politicians and talk-show hosts, but absolutely nothing has been done about it in more than two decades. Back in the states, meanwhile, as an adjunct in English, I have nothing before me *except* “precarious work.” I don’t have a lack of self-confidence, but I do have a lot of fatalism.

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