The ‘Precariat’: stressed out, insecure, alienated and angry

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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Inequality. Class fragmentation. Social and economic exclusion. 

These buzzword terms are often used by church and labor advocates to explain a new global reality. They suggest that human society is pulling apart, leaving diverse groups of people on the outside looking in.

But in other important (if deeply uncertain) ways, the "excluded" of society are slowly becoming aware of their predicament and growing in influence, says British economist Guy Standing. 

In an interview with NCR, Standing, a Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, explained how an emerging social class called the "precariat" is defining the new normal in societies across the world. 

Its growth is already influencing politics, he says, including the current U.S. presidential race. 

Standing has written a number of books about the precariat, one of which, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, has been translated into 15 languages. He has presented the book over 300 times in 33 countries. 

The lives of people in the precariat are defined by precariousness, or "precarity," he says. They experience pervasive economic insecurity and uncertainty, inconsistent work and labor relations, and increasingly, a lack of control over time.

As for where they fit into society, "you've got to give it a context," he said. "It's too simplistic to talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent."

Standing paints a picture of a tiered system of economic class order, beginning with a plutocracy, "the 0.001 percent, with their billions striding the globe."

Below the plutocracy exists an "elite" he said, "multi-millionaires doing extremely well, earning from capital." Below that, a "salariat," or people with salaries and "long term employment security and non-wage benefits like pensions, paid holidays, paid medical benefits and so on," folks who were "expected to be the majority by the end of the 20th century, but [who have] been shrinking everywhere." 

Alongside the salariat are entrepreneurs, "whiz kids rushing around the world making large amounts of money" and deliberately avoiding a staid life. 

Next comes "the old working class, what you Americans call the middle class," also "shrinking everywhere." 

Finally, hovering just above poverty, exists the precariat.

It's difficult to pin down their exact numbers, Standing says. "We lack the precise data needed," he said, "but without any doubt, the numbers and share of the adult population are growing."

"Over a third of the adult population in most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries can be included," he said, "with over 40% in some countries, such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece. There are some Ph.D. dissertations under way in which estimates of over 50% for Japan and South Korea have been made."

The precariat consists of both old and young. "A lot of people have said it's mainly a youth problem or a generational issue," Standing said, "but if that were the case then the young people who were entering the precariat would at some stage move out of it … but a lot of the people who are entering the precratiat are not youthful. They're middle aged, or even older." 

Lacking meaningful work

Similarly, Standing doesn't believe it's quite right to say that people in the precariat are "excluded" from society. 

"Exclusion suggests that they're outside the mainstream of society," he said. "Now, the argument that really is implicit in my analysis is that the global economy wants a precariat. It wants a large number of people to be flexible, to be adaptable, to be prepared to move between jobs, and so on … so to talk about exclusion when you're talking about what is going to be a majority … I don't think that word conveys what it's all about."

People in the precariat lack meaningful work, Standing says.

"They are being habituated to accept a life of unstable labor, temporary jobs, casual in and out work, internships," he said. "In the process, they have [developed] no occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives."

And they suffer from high levels of stress. 

"The precariat actually has to do a hell of a lot of work that never gets counted as labor," he said. "They have to spend a lot of time networking, retraining for jobs, filling out forms … it's a constant, stressful set of demands placed on their time. And a key point is that this is the first working class in history which has a level of education which is above the level of labor they're expected to do. That is a very stressful, frustrating situation."

Another key trait: "Unlike all the other groups, they have to rely almost entirely on money wages or money incomes," Standing said. "They don't get access to non-wage benefits like pensions or paid holidays or medical leave, maternity leave or anything like that."

At the same time, "they are facing declining real wages. This is a big thing in the United States. It's a big thing in Britain. It's a big thing in most countries."

Angry supplicants

In a variety of ways -- economic, political and cultural -- Standing says, "people in the precariat are reduced to being supplicants, supplicants in the sense that they have to ask or satisfy their authority figures; they have to plead, they have to beg."

"People in the precariat are insecure," he said. "They're alienated. They're anomic," or socially disoriented, "in the sense that they don't feel there's any escape from their circumstances. They're anxious. Above all, they're very angry. And this sense of anger is growing all over the world."

It can be seen in the rise of "outsider" political candidates in the U.S. like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

"Part of the precariat consists people falling out of old working class communities and families," Standing said, explaining the Trump crowd. "Their parents had occupations of pride, like dockers or steel workers or car makers -- but they don't. This part of the precariat is not very educated. They're atavistic in the sense that they look back at what they think their parents had, and they're very frustrated because they cannot even have that …this part of the precariat has been attracted to populist far right movements."

Another part of the precariat "consists of mainly young, educated people who went to university and got degrees," he said. "They were promised a career. They came out, there is no career, and they have $50 thousand dollars worth of debt. They're frustrated because they don't have a sense of future. Now, this part of the precariat is the type that I think would be supporting Bernie Sanders."

The third part of the precariat "is probably the largest of all," Standing said -- migrants. 

"Migrants tend to be politically quiet most of the time," he said. "They have insecurities. They don't have a sense of home. And they're just trying to survive. They're demonized by that first group -- anti-migrant and so on -- and they are thoroughly insecure. What is happening in a number of countries is that populist governments are taking rights away from migrants…lowering benefits, shortening benefits, throwing them out. It's a hugely tragic situation …this portion of the precariat could go either way politically."

Standing believes we are currently at a "very interesting stage" where we have "the danger of the far right and the populist nonsense -- and it is a real fear, we must not dismiss this possibility lightly that they could take power in some places," as seen in the rising candidacy of someone like Donald Trump. 

"At the same time," he said, "we have a rejection of the old politics," as seen in the popularity of Sanders. 

The bottom line is that "in country after country, the precariat is becoming politically reengaged," he said. 

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