In his research, Guy Standing has identified a new class that he calls the precariat, which has emerged through globalization, liberalization, and increasing robotization and digitization. This class has the potential to change how businesses are organized in the future and how societies develop. Many activist groups from the precariat have fought for better working conditions, and both pay and job security, so they can plan the future for themselves and their families better.
The precariat, as the term is used here, is associated with Standing’s research, the studies carried out by Johnson in Italy and Arnold’s studies of insecure work in Vietnam. Furthermore, we also refer to the studies of Armano and Murgia of work flexibilization in the USA, as well as Ross’s studies of insecure work in the USA. In addition, we refer to Lodovici and Semenza’s studies of high-skilled youth in Europe who, despite their higher education, have insecure work and expectations of insecurity in future work relations.
We have developed a typology of the precariat in order to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon. We have divided the precariat into four types. We term the first type the underemployed. These are people with a good education and relatively long experience from working life. They are exposed to competition in the global economy and threatened by robotization, so their wages are pushed downwards. The feeling of being excluded makes these people feel frustrated, alienated and angry. The underemployed are hired on short-term contracts depending on the company’s needs. The examples here are many. For instance, an underemployed person could be a young legal professional who takes on extra jobs in the hope of getting a permanent job, but is not rewarded for his or her extra efforts. He or she must wait until a permanent position becomes available. However, when the position does become available there are hundreds of applicants for the position, who have also taken on extra jobs in order to gain recognition.
The second type is a young person with a relatively good education, but who only has temporary underpaid jobs. These young people are skilled but have not had the opportunity to gain experience in the sector relevant to their education. They have been told that it pays to get an education. Consequently, they have completed so-called mid-level higher education, often up to a Bachelor’s degree. However, after completing their education they encounter a job market where they are unable to find regular well-paid jobs. We call this type the underpaid. These workers are also frustrated and angry, because they had expectations of a good job after graduation, but encountered a reality that was different from what they had been told to expect. Their anger may be explained as a crisis of expectation, i.e. the promises that these people are given when they work extra are merely a fata morgana – a mirage, an imaginary hope of a permanent job – because it is more profitable for companies to hire people on short-term contracts than to give them permanent positions.
However, despair does not necessarily lead to political action – it might just as well lead to passivity and apathy. On the other hand, Standing says that the rebellion lies in the self-awareness of the precariat as a class: ‘Across the world, there is an energy building around the precariat.’
The third category is made up of people with specialist expertise, often at the Master’s or PhD level. These people may have had well-paid jobs before being rendered superfluous by robotization, automation, flexibilization, digitization, informatization and so on. Such people often establish their own businesses: ‘the company of one’. They use these businesses to sell their expertise to larger organizations. We refer to these people as knowledge entrepreneurs. In general, these people are satisfied with their entrepreneurial situations. They are hired on short-term contracts by larger companies, large consultancies or organizations in the public sector. Although knowledge entrepreneurs have a sense of independence and freedom in their daily lives, their incomes are insecure. They exist like operators of small coastal fishing boats off northern or western Norway. They sit alone in their little boats with their insecure incomes, but none the less they feel that they are leading free and independent lives. Rates of pay for knowledge entrepreneurs vary, but in general they will earn less than they would have done as permanent employees of the same organizations. Example of knowledge entrepreneurs include IT experts and software engineers. These people tend to work for large organizations on six-month contracts that can be terminated at just a few weeks’ notice.
We term the fourth type vagabond workers. These workers may be migrants and people with disabilities. They are skilled and educated and differ from ‘the working poor’. On the whole, the vagabond workers are satisfied with their working life, because their part-time jobs are better than what they had before. Migrants are often happy to be given the opportunity to get a foothold in their new country; for instance, an engineer from Syria who gets a taxi-driving job, the nurse from Iran who works the nightshift at a hotel or the lawyer who gets a short-term job at a slaughterhouse. In this way, part-time contracts can provide migrants with a qualitatively better life. As mentioned, this type also includes people with various disabilities who previously had no work experience but who can now do a meaningful job, although their income might be low; for instance, someone who is visually impaired working in a call centre, and so on.
The four categories of the precariat have in common that their jobs are temporary and insecure, and they are under pressure with regard to rates of pay and employment rights. They also feel alienated. Quite simply, they feel that their future not only is insecure, but has also been destroyed. The precariat also fear moving down the social ladder to the working poor.
The precariat is not yet a class with a shared ideology. Rather it is made up of isolated individuals who sit on the side-lines of society peering into a world populated by successful people, by the salaried eite – a world where people can plan their futures. This successful elite envisages this new class encroaching on to their manicured lawns, and accordingly they remain obedient to the government in accordance with the principle of protecting the future.
All members of the precariat struggle to obtain steady full-time work. They also work long hours unpaid to show keenness to the employer, with the hope of being preferred if a full-time permanent job becomes available (which it rarely does). Speaking metaphorically, we might say it is easier for a member of the precariat to win the lottery than to obtain a secure, well-paid, full-time job with good prospects. In addition, most members of the precariat9 lack a sense of solidarity with others in the precariat, the trade union movement or a political party. They feel themselves to be excluded by most established institutions. According to Standing, their basic attitude is ‘fuck politics’.10 Members of the precariat do not see themselves as a social class. They have no collective aims, but simply struggle to make ends meet. It is only when they gain class consciousness as a separate social class that they will come to change the social system.