Generation Jobless: Are STEM Students Next?

As college students return to classes this fall, many feel both excitement and apprehension about the future. After all, they are about to invest tens of thousands of dollars in education that they hope will lead to bright economic futures. Some probably feel pressure to pursue STEM degrees because they’ve been told that this will guarantee a good return on that investment. Unfortunately, as Andrew Hacker shows in a recent book review about education and high-tech work, there is clear evidence that this idea is wrong. Indeed, while those who tout the knowledge economy promote the idea that higher education is the key to economic opportunity, recent college graduates are having difficulty finding work, and many of the jobs they have found don’t require the kind of education they have. This led the Wall Street Journal to describe recent graduates as “Generation Jobless.”

Robert Reich thinks the problem is the result of businesses requiring only a small workforce of innovators and strategists He believes that over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work, including many with advance degrees. He predicts that corporations will continue to expand their use of algorithms to measure their value and develop spot-auction networks. Under this system, corporations would have a small number of core employees and would require others to bid on work opportunities. Using Apple as example, Reich notes that the company employs fewer that 10 percent of its 1 million employees who design, make, and sell their product. The rest are largely contingent workers.

But do the concerns of most college graduates apply to those earning STEM degrees? If you listen to business and higher education administrators, science and technology workers are in short supply. But Hacker finds that underemployment and joblessness include STEM graduates and employees. In reviewing a series of books concerning the need for high-tech talent, Hacker found that business and higher education leaders have greatly exaggerated the employment opportunities for STEM graduates. For example, he cites a National Science Board study that shows that of the 19.5 million STEM degree holders, only 5.4 million actually work in those fields. That suggests that extending STEM programs will probably not increase employment or lead graduates into better quality jobs. Hacker finds that employers blame the inadequate educational preparation of STEM employees, turn to low cost foreign workers, or increasingly replace workers with more technology. The result is increasing job insecurity even among STEM employees.

Put differently, despite claims that education is the path to better economic opportunity, workers in the knowledge economy are already and will continue to experience limited employment and economic mobility. Of course, this has long been the experience of the working class, and some would suggest that this is simply the proletarianization of STEM workers. But is it?

In his study of precarity, Guy Standing draws a distinction between prolitarianization and what he calls precariatization. He argues that proletarianization is the late nineteenth century historical term for the habituation of labor. The precariat, including STEM workers, are losing control over their time and the use of their capabilities, which represents a different situation than what the proletariat faced 150 years ago. Standing writes, that “the precariat has distinctive relations of production, or labour relations they [flit] in and out of jobs, often with incomplete contracts or forced into indirect labour relationships via agencies or brokers.” In essence, the precariat can be seen largely as a class of contingent workers regardless of education level.

We see this already in “taskers,” as Standing wrote here last spring, but we should expect to see a similar shift for STEM workers. They will lose control over their time as they spend longer hours at work and more time looking for work. They will also experience increasing levels of job insecurity. Because unstable work opportunities rarely if ever include employer-financed insurance such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers compensation and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, these workers will be deprived of economic benefits and government protections. Instead, they will have to take responsibility for their own employment costs — education and retraining, health insurance, and pensions. The changing work conditions disrupt more than just workers’ schedules or bank accounts. They also wreak havoc on workers mental health and personal lives. STEM graduates are not inheriting the economic future they envisioned. Some are learning tough lessons about the “race to bottom” and the experiences of the working class.

As I have said many times, deindustrialization and economic restructuring not only cost many people their jobs, they also undermined the stability of communities and made the American dream inaccessible for many working-class people. This has been clear for decades in places like Youngstown, which relied so heavily on manufacturing. The change is not only about technology replacing human work, the focus of a recent article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. It’s about the gap between claims about STEM education and the reality of STEM employment. The knowledge economy was supposed to bring a better future, especially for those who pursued the education necessary to enter the middle class, but as science, engineering, and technology jobs become increasingly contingent, the educated workforce is joining the working class and becoming part of the precariat. No wonder young people are worried.

John Russo
Visiting Scholar
Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor
Georgetown University

Taskers in the Precariat: Part 2 – Essential Reforms

In “Taskers: The Precariat in the On-Demand Economy: Part 1,” I defined three types of taskers — on-demand, crowd labour, and zero hours employees – and highlighted the problems associated with these new forms of work: insecurity, low and fluctuating incomes, chronic uncertainty, lack of control over time, and the dismantling of occupational communities. I now want to propose policies that could improve taskers’ economic status and work conditions.

The on-demand economy and the precariat are here to stay, and we must fight for new forms of regulation, redistribution, and social protection to redress growing inequities. Real wages for the precariat – including taskers and others — will continue to stagnate. Income redistribution will have to come by other means. Forging a new system will not be easy, but is vital. As even intelligent conservative economic interests recognise, growing inequality threatens economic, social, and political stability.

However, the specifics of tasking also demand remedial policies. Let us start by considering policies for society, then policies directed at labour brokers, and then policies for protecting and enhancing the position of taskers themselves.

At society level, we should stop trying to compress taskers into the category of employee. Labour statistics define workers as either “employees” or “self-employed.” Neither of these terms, nor “freelancers”, is appropriate for describing the status of most people doing tasking, since they lack freedoms associated with being an independent seller of services, and they not employees in the old sense of mutuality of obligations. We should designate “tasker” as a separate category.

In the US, several class action cases are being heard to determine whether taskers in certain sectors should be classified as employees. While we might debate the specific conditions under which taskers could be identified as employees, we would do better to overhaul old labourist rules that privilege employees. It would be better if legislation dealt with the issues more generically. And in any case, why should only “employees” be covered by the protections built up in the 20th century? All forms of work should have the same rights and entitlements. The term ‘labour rights’ is a contradiction, since it is people who have rights, and these should apply to everybody, regardless of their specific labour or work status.

The emergence of taskers has intensified the frictions and divergent interests of different groups of worker. Anybody who thinks there is a unified working class in current circumstances is hallucinating. This is why we need a new system of collaborative bargaining between complementary and substituting occupational groups. The collective bargaining capacities of taskers must also be strengthened. On the one side are employers and labour brokers; on the other are employees, taskers, and freelancers.

Another social concern arises from the fact that the labour brokers are rentiers, earning vast amounts for doing very little if we accept their claim that all they do is provide technology to put clients in touch with ‘independent contractors’ of services. Thus, Uber and its rival Lyft say they are technology, not transport, companies.

By treating taskers as ‘independent contractors’, brokers avoid paying contributions that would entitle taskers to state benefits, and they avoid paying non-wage benefits that employees should receive. In return for their intermediary role, brokers typically take 20% of earnings. But they are free-riding on the public, since if taskers fall on hard times, they will need benefits from the state. Normal employers have to make a contribution to pay for benefits; brokers currently avoid doing so.

Accordingly, the authorities should establish a tasker levy (tax) of, say, 20% of labour brokers’ earnings or for each tasker they contract. Similarly, if they require taskers to use their own equipment, such as a car or machine tools, brokers should pay part of insurance costs. If this is meant to be a “sharing economy”, as its apostles claim, then costs as well as benefits should be shared.

As for the brokers, if we accept that they represent an emerging ‘profession’, they should be pushed to establish stronger professional associations whose members develop and subscribe to formal Codes of Ethics. All brokers should be registered and required to join an association that could monitor conduct of members.

As for the taskers, occupational licensing must be rolled back. Licensing is the form of state regulation promoted in the neo-liberal era in place of guild regulation. In the US, over 1,000 occupations are now subject to licensing, mostly unnecessarily. Licensing often operates as a barrier to the right to practise. The insurance industry and commercial interests dominate licensing, transferring risks, uncertainty, and costs onto workers, and often enabling licensing boards to block or punish someone without due process. Labour brokers and the precariat in general should be united in wishing to see less licensing.

Licensing should be limited to occupations that involve real dangers, as in the case of surgeons, architects, and builders. Otherwise, occupational self-regulation should be revived. And there should be more reliance on accreditation, that is, membership in an association that testifies to competence or experience. For all professions, an international accreditation system should be constructed, with standardised rules. This would allow anybody to practise a particular form of work, but it would ensure that they were competent and met set standards. For example, Uber drivers should be required to display signs indicating whether they are licensed, accredited to a drivers’ association, or neither. They should also be required to show they are insured. Failure to inform a client in advance should be sanctionable.

On wages and prices, in the case of crowd labour, all taskers involved in Dutch auctions should have the right to know what rates are paid to successful bidders and what conditions have been applied. Those on zero-hours contracts should be compensated for inconvenience and insecurity based on hours. Such “stand-by bonuses” are required in Germany and could be set as a base salary. They should also be allowed to do other work without exclusivity clauses in their contracts. Both zero-hours employees and crowd-labour taskers should have the right to decline on-demand tasks without loss of pay or opportunity unless given at least 24 hours’ notice, so that they can gain more control of their lives.

All forms of on-demand labour should involve written contracts (signed and scanned), drawn up and agreed before tasks are allocated or performed, with at least one witness to each party in broker-tasker agreements. Taskers should also be compensated if the broker obliges them to undergo more than one round of consideration before a decision is made to contract them.

Taskers must have a right to know what information brokers share about them and to have false information withdrawn from electronic circulation. To protect taskers, no company should be allowed to inform other firms that a tasker has brought a complaint or sued for compensation, unless a conviction for fraud by the tasker has been obtained. In other words, blacklisting must be banned.

Similarly, customer rating of individual taskers should be curbed. Some brokers dismiss taskers if they receive several poor ratings (made feasible by the app). That might sound reasonable, but it could lead to crude discriminatory practices, and it lacks due process. Prejudiced customers could use the app to grade taskers from ethnic minorites negatively solely because they do not like such people. There should, at least, be demonstrable evidence and opportunities for taskers to defend themselves before actions are taken.

One exploitative aspect of crowd labour requires a special response. Some corporations, such as the Los Angeles-based Business Talent Group, Fox Mobile Entertainers, and Tongal, pay modest prizes to taskers who submit commercially viable ideas. The firms buy ideas at a fraction of their commercial value, since they can patent them, creating a monopoly income stream lasting for twenty years. This is one of the most exploitative tricks in labour history. Regulations should stipulate that taskers should receive at least 50% of the income stream of any of their ideas that is patented.

Finally, taskers should have a right to publicly-funded legal advice, subsidised by contributions from labour broker corporations. Taskers should be required to make a partial payment, to discourage frivolous actions. But having access to legal advice would encourage both sides to make agreements transparent and standardised as much as possible.

Achieving these reforms will require social struggle by and for the precariat. We must realise that the precariat’s vulnerability today is a threat to all of us tomorrow. When sweating spreads to taskers, the threat to wages and working conditions for those outside the precariat grows. We must wake up to that threat.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London.

Taskers: The Precariat in the On-Demand Economy (Part One)

Revolutionary changes are taking place in the global labor process, creating new labor relations while expanding the ranks of the precariat. Informed observers predict that within the next decade, one in every three labor transactions will be done online as part of the “on-demand,” “sharing,” “gig,” or “crowd labor” economy.

New words are creating a new vocabulary of work and labor, often meaning something quite different from what they might imply. As I have explained elsewhere, whereas labour has exchange value and is usually remunerated, work consists of many activities that are productive or reproductive that mostly have use value, although many are done out of necessity because we are obliged to do them. We will overcome the confusion, but it may take time.

Essentially, the emerging labor process revolves around three entities: (1) Rentier corporations (labor brokers), which control the technological apparatus, the apps; (2) Labor “requesters”, the middlemen; and (3) Taskers, those who do the jobs. The apps and smartphones are the equivalent of the old labor hall, without the bustle that at least indicated the bargaining position of brokers and laborers. Taskers are basically piece-rate workers, but they should be distinguished both from employees, who are covered by labor law and collective bargaining, and the self-employed. Taskers come in three forms, each posing challenges to those concerned with the world of work.

First, in the on-demand – or, more cruelly, ‘concierge’ – economy, labor-broking corporations are bypassing old forms of market transaction, connecting final customers with taskers who supply services, such as taxi driving, bed-sharing, food delivery, shopping, legal advice, or medical care. These service providers (or errand boys or “task-rabbits”) should be distinguished from workers, since the broker treats them as self-employed, thereby excluding them from entitlements or protections that the state supposedly grants employees.

On-demand taskers must be available at most times of day and night or risk losing income or future opportunities. Unlike the classic proletarian employee, they own the means of production, in the form of a car, apartment, bicycle, machine tools, or whatever. And they do not have fixed or even known hours of labor. They must do a lot of work-for-labor, work neither compensated nor even recognized as work. They must wait around, unable to devote themselves to other activities in case the iPhone calls them to do a task.

On-demand taskers are usually isolated, without bargaining power. They are in a buyer’s market, having to accept a price set by the buyer. While many may feel “grateful” for the opportunity to earn a little, they must bear all the risks – accidents, ill-health from stress, loss of friendships, non-payment, repairs to vehicles or tools, replacement of stained carpets, health insurance, and so on. They face constant uncertainty — of income, tasks, costs, and personal comforts. And they are in constant competition with other unknown taskers.

A second type of tasker is part of the crowd-labor pool, an expanding phenomenon already involving over 12 million people, a third in the USA. Here, labor intermediaries are pivotal. Direct producers contract with a brokering corporation, such as Amazon Turk, ODesk, or eLance, which in turn utilize requesters to sub-contract tasks to successful bidders — taskers — from a potentially global crowd-labor pool. This involves a Dutch auction, in which requesters announce on line that so many such-and-such tasks are up for bid, to be completed within a stipulated period, and that bidding will close within, say, five days. Often the requester announces at the outset a maximum price or piece-rate, and taskers then bid each other down. Taskers can bid to undertake as many tasks as they think feasible at a price they think is right for them. At the end, requesters select from the lowest bids. So, somebody in Boston can be bidding against someone from Bangalore, Dakar, or Manchester. This is invidious, because the most insecure will tend to bid the lowest.

Because crowd-labor taskers do not know how many people are bidding or where they are, they may easily believe competition is more intense than it is. For the broker, that is ideal. But tasks may turn out to be more complex or time-consuming than taskers had been led to believe, resulting in even more self-exploitation. Many worry about their ability to finish tasks on time or satisfy the quality demanded, especially when they have no means of seeing what others are achieving. And in practice they have no means of redress should the broker decide not to pay or to delay payment on some pretext.

The larger the global crowd-labor pool, the easier it will be for brokers to impose demands and penalties on individual taskers. For instance, if a requester in New York unilaterally decides that a tasker in Dakar did not do something well enough and refuses to pay, the solitary tasker probably will not be able, or be confident enough, to try to recover her money. The scope for scams is enormous.

A third type of tasker is someone hired as a nominal full-time employee but who is on a zero-hours contract. This growing ruse involves paying only for the hours they are actually required to labor. They must be on stand-by at all times and travel to and from workplaces without compensation, often not knowing if they will get work or for how long. Over 1.4 million people in the UK are on such contracts.

All these taskers face insecurity, low and fluctuating incomes, chronic uncertainty, and lack of control over time. They have no fixed hours or workplaces. Unlike workers in the industrial time regime, where life could be measured in blocks of time, they live in a tertiary time regime, in which labor and work blur into each other, without payment for downtime, waiting, retraining, networking, and so on. They have illusion of freedom while also feeling that they are under incessant control. This is debilitating, with psychological consequences that we have only begun to explore.

The process depresses wage rates, whether taskers are paid on a piece-rate or time-rate basis. The decline is greater than is measured, since much of the tasker’s work is unrecorded, including time for rest, preparing, and waiting. The process also increases the precariat’s volatility of earnings, leaving them without non-wage or state benefits.

Driving down wages in general creates even more profits for the broker corporations. In this respect, Uber has set the bar for ruthless opportunism, and in spite of protests by licensed taxi drivers, it is operating in over 200 cities in 51 countries. It is decimating the ranks of licensed taxis, and depressing the earnings of taxi drivers. Critics fear that once Uber has succeeded in marginalizing taxis, it will raise its rates, especially in surge periods.

The process also accentuates the dismantling of occupational communities. Occupational guilds defined working life for hundreds of years, setting standards, codes of ethics, means of training, and sources of social protection. They stood against the market. The neo-liberal agenda hinges on dismantling them, and the on-demand economy is both a consequence and an accelerator of that. The costs include loss of occupational ethics and routes of social mobility through professions and crafts

The on-demand economy also reverses a capitalist mantra. Instead of capitalists, or firms, owning the means of production, they are ‘owned’ by the precariat. The former maximize profits through patents and other forms of intellectual property. They draw investment from venture capital, which thrives on short-lived, high rates of profit.

The precariat in this zone is isolated, in permanent competition with each other. The atomization drives down wages and transfers risks, hazards, shocks, and uncertainty onto the precariat. Taskers have minimal means or opportunities to coalesce.

Dangers for taskers include under-insurance, due partly to the difficulty of working out the risks with any insurer, especially where the potential insurer could not presume that the supplier would be properly qualified or be able to take due care.

The “sharing economy” has a cultural dimension, as well. When someone “shares” for money a car, apartment, or utensils, they convert zones of privacy and use value into alienated commodities with exchange value. It is an instance of the “Lauderdale Paradox,” in which the act of commodification is one of privatization that contrives scarcity of space or time.

These forms of labor intensify the pressure to commodify one’s life. It is a sad way for the precariat to respond to adversity, intensifying self-exploitation. It is how those experiencing declining wages and living standards cover up the decline, for a while.

In the upcoming weeks in Working-Class Perspectives, I will consider what can be done to improve the long-term income and economic security of taskers and the precariat.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London.

Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

Several weeks ago, I attended the “The American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies” Conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by The American Prospect, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, and the Albert Shanker Institute. It was nice to see many old friends with whom I had worked as a Labor Studies Professor for 35 years. It was especially nice see David Moberg, labor journalist at In These Times.

We recalled the many “Labor at the Crossroads” conferences we had attended beginning with the crisis in the steel industry and the beginnings of deindustrialization in the 1970s. Most of these conferences accomplished little and had minimal impact on union leaders who rarely attended and were sometimes overwhelmed by the pace of change and the forces arrayed against them. But the program for last week’s conference looked different, and the conference ultimately felt different. As I said to the organizers, the panels and discussions were unusually frank, and some of the best were led by young people, women, and people of color.

Some both within and outside of the American labor movement have pronounced its impending death. But as Lance Compa has pointed out, plenty of successful union organizing is happening in traditional, largely stable industries and companies in manufacturing, transportation, communication, health care, food processing, and the public sector. Further, unions are a potent political force in advancing labor and civil rights in coastal and Midwest battleground states where urban density is the greatest. They have been powerful advocates for minimum wage increases and the expansion of health care for all working people. Taken together, Compa estimated that about 20% of all workers who are able to organize under US labor law are organized. The struggle for labor movement lies with the other 80%, especially those with those who experience unstable wages and working conditions and even those who embrace intermittent employment.

In the past, unions largely ignored these workers, finding them difficult to organize under current labor law and union strategies. But these workers have begun to organize themselves, in some cases with union backing. At the conference, we heard speakers from National Guest Workers Alliance, the Texas Workers Defense Project, the fast food worker campaign, and many “alt-union” organizing efforts involving day laborers, adjunct faculty, domestic workers, home healthcare workers, and regional and national worker centers.

One the most important speakers was Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union. The Freelancers Union (FU) wants to organize the 53 million self-employed workers, a growing portion of the labor market as the structure of work is changing. FU researchers found that 40% of these workers were true independent contractors, while another 23% were moonlighters trying to make ends meet. Put differently, the self-employed sector is diverse, ranging from members of the professional managerial class (salariat) to the working classes, and all experience some degree of casualization and/or precarity.

Horowitz believes the labor movement must recognize that both work and individuals are changing in cultural and economic ways. Some people, she argues, embrace flexibility and reject traditional work organizations and consumption patterns. They do not accept the work-spend cycle and are comfortable living with less. Instead of aspiring to home or car ownership, they prefer to rent or share. They seek a fuller life away from work, based on communities, networks, and neighborhoods. Horowitz calls this Freelance 360,which embraces a “new mutualism” that includes building “smarter solutions to health care, retirement, wage security, and other broken systems.” The FU’s goal is to develop sustainable work communities, networks, and co-ops in the growing informal and unstable work environment through “a spirit of collaboration and mutual support” and “building meaningful connected lives and thriving local communities.” This vision of a sharing economy has attracted both interest and critique.

In the last 15 years, FU has organized various networking events as well as an on-line freelancers network to share information, ideas, and potential collaborations. Its website provides important information for freelancers on health-related issues and insurance, taxes, wage rates and fringe benefits, business models, and marketing strategies. Participants also share information on clients. The FU has also published a Freelancers Bible that provides career information and a clever YouTube video that explains what it is trying to accomplish and why.

Some mainstream unionists at the conference may have felt threatened by Horowitz’s remarks. I think this fear is misguided. The FU is not challenging traditional organizing at brick and mortar sites with fixed hours and working conditions. Rather, it is simply suggesting that traditional methods and issues are inappropriate when work has become more informal, flexible, and episodic. Given the history of the labor movement, the tension was not unexpected even at a conference built around experimentation in thinking, organizing, and strategies.

The shift in thinking that FU advocates suggests the value of a broader definition of “working class,” one that includes the precariat along with more traditional workers. Over the last few years on Working-Class Perspectives, Guy Standing, Tim Strangleman and I have considered the definitions, conditions, and issues associated with the growing precariat. In the coming months, we will continue to examine changes in work and the growth of the precariat. For example, Guy Standing will comment on how we might define workers and the labor process in the on-demand economy. Tim Strangleman will look at some corporate origins of the fissuring workplace that has become a source of precarity. Sherry Linkon will consider cultural representations of precarity.

We have not abandoned our focus on working-class life and culture. Rather, we recognize that a growing number people, including many who once saw themselves as part of a privileged middle class, are now experiencing working-class insecurity and have found that they are one job from poverty. And just as we have long argued for the value (and values) of working-class life and culture while also tracing its struggles, we need to examine both the opportunities and costs of the new economy, in individual and political terms.

John Russo

The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

Across the world, more and more people realize they are in the precariat – or may be soon – and that they are not alone. That is bringing a change of mood, from being defeated and dispirited to being defiant and demanding. Old sociologists may be bewildered, but precariat groups are moving from mass occupations to political re-engagement. They know there is no unified working class and do not want to go back in search of a phoney unity. We need an alternative progressive future, forged for and by the precariat.

Most fundamentally, the 20th century income distribution system has collapsed. The share of income going to profits has rocketed and will continue to rise, the share going to rent will rise even more. Real wages will continue to stagnate.

In pursuit of competitiveness, governments have implemented policies of labor flexibility, making labor more insecure, leaving millions without health care, pensions or other benefits. Governments have turned to means-tested social assistance and to workfare. The welfare state has withered.

Meanwhile, a global class structure has been taking shape, superimposed on national structures. At the top is a tiny plutocracy, many with criminal backgrounds. Their economic and political power is awesome; they have no responsibility to any nation state.

Below them is an elite who also gain from capital, some from what Thomas Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism. Below them is a salariat, with employment security, pensions, paid holidays, and other non-wage perks. They are what American scholars in the 1960s and 1970s expected to become the norm. But although a salariat will persist, it is shrinking.

Alongside it is what I call proficians, project-oriented, self-entrepreneurs, not seeking employment security. Many work frenetically, but suffer from burn-out sooner or later. They too are uninterested in defending wages. They obtain their money elsewhere.

Then comes the old proletariat, for which welfare states as well as labor relations and regulations were constructed. The proletariat was oriented to a lifetime of stable full-time labor, in which entitlements, ‘labor rights,’ were built up. But it is dwindling, along with its capacity, and even desire, to defend welfare institutions. Its achievements should not be romanticized. The proletariat favored and benefited from a sexist, often racist hierarchical laborism. Its labor unions epitomised that. There have been few more reactionary figures in American history, for example, than the old leaders of the AFL-CIO.

It is below the proletariat where the precariat is growing. It is not an under-class. That is the lumpen-precariat, victims eking out an existence in the streets, sad souls going to an early death. The precariat, by contrast, is regarded by global capital as pivotal, and the neo-liberal state is shaping it. Recent estimates suggest that the precariat makes up about 40% of the adult population in Japan, Korea, Greece, Spain, Italy, Australia, and Sweden, still seen as the nirvana of social democracy. The biggest precariat is in China.

Defining the Precariat

The precariat should be defined in three dimensions. First, it has distinctive relations of production. Those in it have unstable labor, in ‘flexible’ contracts, working as temps, casuals, ‘freelance,’ part-time, or intermittently for employment agencies. The most rapidly growing form of unstable labor is “crowd work.” Many commentators wrongly presume insecure labor is all that defines the precariat, and then dismiss it as nothing new.

There was always unstable labor. But today it is becoming the norm. Just as historians analyzed the process of proletarianisation as disciplining workers to the norms of stable labor, internalizing that as a duty, a compact with capital, so the precariat is being habituated to unstable labor.

Crucially, the precariat has no secure occupational identity, no narrative to give to their lives. And they have to do a lot of work that does not count and is not paid. They are exploited off the workplace as well as on it, outside working hours as well as in them. This is also the first working class in history expected to have more education than their jobs require.

Second, the precariat has distinctive relations of distribution. It relies on money wages, without pensions, paid holidays, retrenchment benefits or medical coverage. It has been losing those benefits, which is why conventional statistics understate growing inequality.

The precariat also lacks rights-based state benefits. That was heralded in Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that he was ending “welfare as we know it.” The punitive Wisconsin workfare model has since gone global. Meanwhile, with wages volatile and falling, the precariat lives on the edge of unsustainable debt. Debt has become a systematic mechanism of exploitation, as people struggle to maintain yesterday’s standard of living.

Third, the precariat has distinctive relations to the state. Those in it are losing rights granted to citizens, becoming denizens without civil, cultural, political, social, and economic rights. Increasingly, they are supplicants, pleading for benefits or services, relying on discretionary decisions of bureaucrats making moralistic judgments on whether their behavior or attitude is deserving.

These three dimensions produce a consciousness of relative deprivation, a combination of anxiety, anomie (despair of escape), alienation (having to do what they do not wish to do while being unable to do what they are capable of doing), and anger.

Varieties of Precariat

At present, the precariat consists of three factions, which is why it is a class-in-the-making, not yet a class-for-itself. The first faction consists of those falling into the precariat from working-class communities. They lack schooling and feel deprived by reference to a lost past. Their predecessors had employment security, pensions and so on. They want that past. Many listen to populists and neo-fascists attributing their insecurity to migrants and minorities. Across Europe and elsewhere, many are voting for nationalistic, xenophobic, and racist agendas.

The second faction consists of migrants and minorities, who feel denied a home, a viable present. Mostly, they keep their heads down, concentrating on survival. But when policies threaten even that, they rebel in days of rage (as in Stockholm in 2013) or join some fundamentalist cause. They are the ultimate denizens, denied rights everywhere.

The third group consists of the educated, mostly young. They suffer relative deprivation by being denied a future, a life of dignity and fulfilment. But they do not listen to neo-fascists; they look to recover a future, aspiring to create a good society based on equality, freedom, and ecological sustainability.

The Emerging Struggles

Fortunately, partly due to the mass protests in and since 2011, more people have come to recognize that they belong to the precariat, which is an essential starting point for a counter-movement. Among the third group, a feeling is growing that they are not just victims but can fight back. This part of the precariat wants to struggle for a transformative agenda designed to abolish itself through overcoming the conditions that define it.

However, the precariat is the new dangerous class because all in it reject mainstream political establishments. Many have not been voting. This does not mean they are politically apathetic, merely that mainstream parties and politicians have not understood their needs or aspirations.

The protests since 2011 have been mostly the actions of what historians call primitive rebels, symbolizing a time when the emerging class is more united around what it is against than around what it wants instead. But the protests are helping the precariat move closer to being a class-for-itself. It is ready to move to a struggle for Representation and Redistribution.

Unlike the old socialist project, the struggle will be for a redistribution of resources needed for personal development in an ecologically sustainable society: security, control over time, quality space (including the commons), liberating education, financial knowledge, and capital. All are more unequally distributed than income. The precariat has no security, no control over time, is crowded into impoverishing space and is losing the commons (cause of the Geci Park occupation), is subject to commodifying schooling, lacks financial knowledge, and is denied access to capital.

A counter-movement is taking shape. The precariat is re-engaging in democratic politics. After the neo-liberal dystopia, the Future is back on the agenda. The precariat must be the vanguard of a new progressive era.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London. He will present his new book, A Precariat Charter, at CUNY (November 4), the New School (November 5), and Cornell (November 7).

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