The age of the precariat: surviving unpredictability and insecurity

The number of people considered to be working precarious jobs in the UK, workers with less security and a higher threat of losing their jobs at short or no notice, has grown by two million people over the last decade to 7.1 million, or one-in-five of the population.

And while companies such as Sports Direct, Deliveroo, Uber and Hermes have received the lion’s share of press attention over their employment terms, the professions in which job security is dwindling extends into more traditionally secure professions, such as finance, law, medicine and teaching.

The phrase ‘there’s no such thing as a job for life anymore’ has been doing the rounds for some time. The notion that career security is not what it once was has perhaps become naturalised for the younger generations, who are realising they’re not going to have the same experience as their parents. The new normal is less career security and we need to exercise greater control over our futures.

This is translating into a growing class of contract workers and entrepreneurs, particularly relevant within accountancy, a profession that has been significantly disrupted by technological innovation, and which is presented with increasing opportunities in servicing entrepreneurs or becoming business owners in their own right. Yet starting a business is inherently risky and, depending on scale, can be more insecure than freelancing or contract work. While servicing the growing wave of entrepreneurs is also not without risk, considering that many fail or struggle to scale-up in the UK.

SOAS Professional Research Associate Guy Standing, the author of several books that address this precarious situation, believes a new socio-political class, ‘the precariat’, is already beyond a notion and is an extremely fast-growing reality. Standing considers the precariat a swelling group formed of a shrinking working class, immigrants and educated people, a currently fragmented and detached group all experiencing less secure employment prospects. Above the precariat are the salariat, or executive class, and above them the rentiers, or owners and controllers of wealth.

‘One part of the precariat is falling out of old working class communities and traditions, where their parents or peers had classic occupations,’ says Standing. ‘This group doesn’t have a lot of education, this group is listening to the Trumps, Marine le Pen and pushed for Brexit. The second part of the precariat consists of migrants, they keep their heads down politically, until pressures grow too great and we experience “days of rage”.

‘The third group is the educated, people who’ve been to university or college, and they were told they’d get a career, a future, improved recruitment and a life of development, but that’s not the reality.’

This is the part that Standing is largely addressing at his talks around the world, and he considers it subversive in a different sense to the first two groups in that it wants a ‘politics of paradise’: a progressive politics, freedom, equality, to rescue the commons, an ecological future and personal development through work. Yet it hasn’t seen any of this in the conventional political left of centre.

Over the last couple of years more and more people have recognised that they’re in the precariat and they no longer view themselves as failures, as useless, as victims, says Standing. ‘Once you realise you’re part of a huge number of people experiencing similar things, then you can start the fight-back, look at what can be done about it. In that regard it’s important to see the precariat as not just victims, they’re people who want a different style of life, they want to work, they don’t want to be in the same boring old job for 30 years, it’s not something that appeals to them. The security they want to focus on is changing social policy, climate change, they want a sense of control of their time, they want to be able to develop real education access to their culture and their roots.

‘I think this part is actually very attuned to enlightenment values, and they’re saying the old social democratic, labourist, socialist vision of the 20th century was a progress on the past, but it was ultimately stultifying, not promising freedom. The primary enemy then was the boss, the corporates, today for the precariat the primary antagonist is the state and they want to see its reform.’

With Standing invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, it’s evident that political and business leaders are beginning to recognise the need to understand this growing and volatile part of society, and on a global level.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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