I Am a Freelancer. Am I One of the Precariat?

The world is changing. One of the biggest challenges modern society is currently facing is that of the emergence of a new social class. Published in 2011, a book by the British economist Guy Standing describes a new laboring class, now in the process of formation, that he has called “the precariat” (from the English word ‘precarious’ – unstable, inconstant – combined with ‘proletariat’). This new class is quickly becoming a threat and a fundamentally new challenge for the whole modern world.

Woman staring at her phone at night

Who Is the Precariat?

The precariat is a class of people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare. ‘Gig economy’ workers, freelancers without long term or permanent contracts, interns, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers, contractors are all considered to be precariat.

A New Social Class

Traditional notions of social stratification do not clearly reflect the realities of the era of globalization. Standing suggested a new vocabulary to illustrate class relations of the twenty-first century. He identified the following groups:

“At the top is an ‘elite’, consisting of a tiny number of absurdly rich global citizens lording it over the universe, with their billions of dollars, listed in Forbes as among the great and the good, able to influence governments everywhere and to indulge in munificent philanthropic gestures. Below that elite comes the ‘salariat’, still in stable full-time employment, some hoping to move into the elite, the majority just enjoying the trappings of their kind, with their pensions, paid holidays and enterprise benefits, often subsidised by the state… Alongside the salariat, in more senses than one, is a (so far) smaller group of ‘proficians’. This term combines the traditional ideas of ‘professional’ and ‘technician’ but covers those with bundles of skills that they can market, earning high incomes on contract, as consultants or independent own-account workers. The proficians are the equivalent of the yeomen, knights and squires of the Middle Ages. They live with the expectation and desire to move around, without an impulse for long-term, full-time employment in a single enterprise. The ‘standard employment relationship’ is not for them.
Below the proficians, in terms of income, is a shrinking ‘core’ of manual employees, the essence of the old ‘working class’. The welfare states were built with them in mind, as were the systems of labor regulation. But the battalions of industrial laborers who formed the labor movements have shrivelled and lost their sense of social solidarity.
Underneath those four groups, there is the growing ‘precariat’, flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits living off the dregs of society” (Standing, 7-8).

Defining the Precariat

The author lists the characteristics that distinguish the precariat from other classes. So, unlike the salariat, it has minimal trust relationships with the capital and the state. The precariat is distinguished from the proletariat by the absence of social contracts provided to the old working class in exchange for subordination and loyalty to the state.

Standing breaks down the concept of “security”, drawing a distinction between the traditional working class and the precariat. Security includes: 1) labor market security; 2) employment security; 3) job security; 4) work security; 5) skill reproduction security; 6) income security; 7) representation security (p. 11).

According to Standing, in order to become part of the precariat, it is not necessary to experience the absence of all seven parameters of social security, since the lack of guarantees is just one of the features of the precariat.

Another distinctive feature of the precariat is that it has to rely only on money wages. The precariat cannot rely on medical insurance, paid holidays, paid medical leave, enterprise benefits. “While the salariat have retained enterprise benefits, core workers have been tipped towards the precariat. The share of US-based firms offering health care benefits fell from 69 per cent in 2000 to 60 per cent in 2009. In 2001, employers paid 74 per cent of their employees’ health costs; by 2010, they were paying 64 per cent. In 1980, US employers paid 89 per cent of contributions towards retirement benefits; by 2006, that had fallen to 52 per cent. By 2009, only a fifth of US employees had company-based pensions” (Standing, 42).

Finally, the third hallmark of the precariat is the lack of professional identity. If the career path of an ordinary worker, who has worked all his life at one enterprise, can be presented as a slowly ascending line, then the career of those on precarious incomes would look like an abrupt curve with frequent dips, rises and long periods of unemployment. “They are being habituated to a life of unstable, insecure labor. Casualisation, temping, on-call labour, platform cloud labor and so on are spreading. More importantly, they lack an occupational identity or narrative to give to their lives, or any organisational one” (Standing).

A man walking and looking at his phone

The Origin of the Precariat

In the XXth century, the working class had a strong spirit of solidarity. Collectivism has been transmitted by the working community from generation to generation. Trade unions, defending the interests of workers, fought for stable jobs with long-term employment guarantees and corresponding benefits.
The industrial proletariat ensured that the male worker would receive a salary sufficient to support his family, and not just himself. Now, this rule of thumb has gone.

The emergence of the precariat as a class (or, at least, as a significant social group) at this time is not unexpected. Standing associates this with the development of capitalism in the era of globalization. According to Standing, it is aggressive neo-liberalism that created “flexible” and unstable employment conditions for workers acting as the environment where the precariat has emerged.

At the state level, neoliberalism is usually associated with the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA. It aims to formulate a market society where states leave as much as possible up to individuals participating in institutions which are supposed to be self-regulating markets.

Governments that have adopted the neoliberal model transfer almost all the risks associated with employment to the employees themselves and their families, which generates a feeling of insecurity among them, especially worsening during a crisis.

Neoliberalism allows individuals to participate in the market as freely as they desire, without the threat of governmental intervention. An individual is ready to take the risks that arise in a free market, quickly adapt to market conditions, be fully responsible for the consequences of his decisions.

Neoliberalism emphasized individualism and dismantled collective interests. “Collective bodies are seen as anti-trust, monopolistic and rent-seeking” (Stephen Sanders). Methodical destruction of trade unions as representatives of employees, occupational communities, guilds of crafts and professions resulted in the emergence of a new type of people.

These people don’t identify themselves as part of the solidaristic labor community. While for many centuries, professional communities fostered specific work ethic and empathy, the precariat ended up having no ‘professionalism’ that goes with belonging to a community with specific standards.

Among the measures designed to ‘block any collective voice’ was occupational licensing. As Standing puts it, “Occupations that set their own rules were seen as market distorting, by acting monopolistically. So more people were subjected to occupational licensing and obliged to conform to market practices”.

Pierre Bourdieu called neoliberalism “a Darwinian world”. In this new world everyone struggle against all, clinging to their job and organisation under conditions of insecurity, suffering, and stress (Bourdieu).

Anger, Anomie, Anxiety and Alienation

Since the state has less control over hiring and terms of employment, the labor market is becoming flexible. For example, instead of hiring extra employees, many companies just pay for overtime. Another way is to outsource their labor, in this case they pay a much lower rate and often do not include benefits.

However, temporary and contract jobs don’t let people build long-term trusting relationships. In Standing’s words, “the precariat also has no ladders of mobility to climb, leaving people hovering between deeper self-exploitation and disengagement”. This results in the four A’s – anger, anomie, anxiety and alienation. 

These feelings are caused by any of the following work ‘deviations’.

  1. The border between life and work vanishes. You have to be ready for an urgent task that can arise at any time.
  2. Lack of occupational identity. People tend to define themselves through their occupation and want to be involved in the professional community. Precarious workers can’t answer the questions ‘Who am I?” and “What do I do?” and lack an available support group.
  3. Status frustration. Highly educated workers can’t find jobs that would match their skills and have to take on lower-level jobs.
  4. Fear and insecurity. Unstable work history makes the future uncertain. It is difficult for precarious workers to plan their lives for a long time. They drift towards individualistic opportunism that evolves into a mass incapacity to think long term.

The precariat seeks ways to vent their frustration. Some of these people, due to having relatively little schooling cannot think strategically. This makes them easy prey for populists. If their aspirations are not addressed, more people would be drawn into supporting right-wing agendas.

The progressive part of the precariat will not support neo-fascist parties. “They are looking for a new politics of paradise, something inspirational to revive a vision of a future better than today or yesterday. So far, in most countries, they have not found movements to get there, but this is changing. They have already broken the mold, shown by the Occupy movement and the success of Podemos in Spain, the Movimento Cinque Stelle (MS5) in Italy, Bernie Sanders in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain” (Standing).

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