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