From College to Precarity Trap

Earlier, we wrote about the precariat as a new social class and some of the reasons for its emergence. Today we’ll take a closer look at the biggest group of the precariat and learn about Guy Standing’s insight into the state of modern education.

The precariat was born out of the liberalization of the global labor market in the late 1970s. It involved employment flexibility (frequent job transfers within the same company and changes in job location), job flexibility (changing job structures with minimal opposition or cost), and wage flexibility which meant using temporary workers, migrants as cheap labor and cutting benefits from jobs.

Many people in developed countries have been pushed into the precariat because of having no entitlement to state benefits and feel trapped in an infinite loop of on-call jobs.

Commodification of education

Among people entering the precariat, there are students and recent graduates. A college degree does not guarantee them better job opportunities compared to those who have no tertiary education.

Young people have always entered the job market in precarious positions, but today, according to Standing, they are not offered a reasonable bargain. 

Many graduates have to take temporary positions while firms can extend their probationary periods to pay less.

Precariatisation begins in school or college. Today’s education system has merged with the market economy. Education has become a commodity and seen as an investment. Every year, the cost of education is growing, and more and more young people are falling into the trap of instability associated with vague job prospects. They hope that this investment will pay off, but there is little chance of it.

“Through the ages education has been regarded as a liberating, questioning, subversive process by which the mind is helped to develop nascent capacities. The essence of the Enlightenment was that the human being could shape the world and refine himself or herself through learning and deliberation. In a market society, that role is pushed into the margins” (Standing, 68).

Education is now a field of competition between universities that seek to sell more diplomas. People obtain more certificates and degrees that are worth less and less. They end up having massive loans, and their credentials won’t secure them high-paying jobs. 

Standing argues that commodification of education causes a drop in educational standards. This finds its expression in the increased sales of online courses that minimize direct contact between teachers and students. There are online universities where you can get a bachelor’s degree through peer to peer learning. Students learn from each other by asking questions online.

The UK Taxpayers’ Alliance in 2007 identified 401 ‘non-courses’, including a BA Honours Degree in ‘outdoor adventure with philosophy’, offered at University College Plymouth St Mark and St John, and one in ‘lifestyle management’ at Leeds Metropolitan University (Standing, 70).

Thus, commercialisation makes it possible to organise any courses, if there is a demand for them. Anyone can arrange for the issuance of a certificate, thereby undermining the value of scientific knowledge. Exams are also simplified so as not to scare away prospective students aka ‘buyers’. Standing calls it a societal sickness. We are exposed to an unlimited supply of certificates which do not yield the promised outcome – to find a job to pay off student loans.

Precarity Trap

After graduation, the youth who did well in their studies face status frustration. They often take on positions that don’t require a degree or are low-wage. But they have to grab what they can to pay off the debts. 

To make positions more attractive, companies give them high-sounding titles to conceal the precarity. “The US occupational body, characteristically giving itself the inflated title of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (having been the more modest National Secretaries Association), reported that it had over 500 job titles in its network, including ‘front-office coordinator’, ‘electronic document specialist’, ‘media distribution officer’ (paper boy/girl), ‘recycling officer’ (bin emptier) and ‘sanitation consultant’ (lavatory cleaner)” (Standing, 17).

Another dark side of the flexible labor market is the rise of internships. Where once the probation period ended with a stable job, today companies offer valuable experience as the only remuneration for work. They say that internships help pave the way for the next career move. In fact, many employers see interns as a means of obtaining cheap labor. An internship may give job seekers the upper hand on the competition, but it’s equal to winning the lottery – the odds are low, the costs are inevitable.

Work is different. Not all work done by people is considered as labor. The precariat has to devote much of their time to “work-for-labor’. It includes job search, dealing with state bureaucracy, writing and sending CVs, form filling, job interviews, commuting for a job interview, networking etc. This work doesn’t generate income but rather takes up a lot of time and money. However, in a post-industrial society, this work can’t be ignored. Such skills as assertiveness, using powerful body language, conflict resolution are held in high esteem. The ability to smile nicely, to be witty and clever in conversations have become fully-fledged skills on par with formal qualifications learned through schooling. These skills also demand time investment and self-training.

“In many countries, women’s relative earnings have risen, which is usually attributed to their improved schooling, anti-discrimination measures and changes in the type of jobs they do. But reverse sexism has surely played a part. Customers like pretty faces; bosses love them” (Standing. 123).

In the industrial age, young people were certain that their qualifications would help them earn income for years. The tertiary economy implies lifelong learning. Along with other people, the precariat faces the task of proper time investment. Unlike the salariat, who take courses as part of a well-mapped career, precarious workers don’t know if this training will yield anything. Even if a candidate devotes years to learning, it doesn’t guarantee him stable employment. As Standing puts it, “An acceleration of occupational obsolescence affects many in the precariat. There is a paradox. The more skilled the work, the more likely it is that refinements will take place, requiring “retraining” (Standing, 124).

In other words, the more knowledge you acquire, the more likely it is to become outdated. “It is not just a case of being as good as you were yesterday but of being as good as you should be tomorrow” (Standing, 124). Eventually, such skill insecurity causes either a nervous breakdown or prostration.

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