This is another installment in a series of posts (here, here and here) I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. In this section, the main topic is the composition of the precariat and the consequences of such categories for society as a whole, in terms of social integration and social solidarity (how very durkheimian).
So, who is in the precariat?
“One answer is ‘everybody, actually’. Falling into the precariat could happen to most of us, if accidents occurred or a shock wiped out the trappings of security many have come to rely on. That said, we must remember that the precariat does not just comprise victims; some members enter the precariat because they do not want the available alternatives, some because it suits their particular circumstances at the time. In short, there are varieties of precariat.
Some enter the precariat due to mishaps, some are driven in it, some enter hoping it will be a stepping stone to something else, even if it does not offer a direct route, some choose to be in it instrumentally – including old agers and students simply wishing to obtain a little money or experience – and some combine a precariat activity with something else, as is increasingly common in Japan. Others find that what they have been doing for years, or what they were training to do, becomes part of an insecure precariat existence.” (59)
Standing then distinguishes between two categories within the precariat: the grinners (those who enter the precariat more or less voluntarily, such as students taking casual jobs and expect that to be temporary) and the groaners (those pushed into the precariat). Every demographic category of the precariat has its grinners and groaners. Among old agers, the grinners are those with decent pensions and benefits who get temporary jobs for the extra money or to fund some leisure activity. The groaners are those deprived of such benefits and who have to work for a living. For women, the grinners are those who have a partner with a solid and well-paying job in the salariat and who take jobs also for the extra money and treat them as a sideline. The groaners are those who have no such flexibility and need to work full-time.
Indeed, there is a major gender aspect to the precariat. The feminization of labor and of globalization has pushed more women into the workforce, often in a precarized fashion. Export processing zones are home to a generation of young women. Interestingly, the precariat has long been the norm for women in the workforce while it is relatively new for men (who were the ones who got the stable, unionized and well-paying jobs of the post-War period of expansion). The precariat becomes an major issue when it affects more men. As the ‘family wage’ (a feature of the industrial age, a man’s wage) has been more and more replaced with the individualized wage, women have seen their obligations multiply: forget about Arlie Hochschild’s second shit, enters Standing’s triple burden (paid work, housework / child care and eldercare)… these are the same women that experts in development have charged with meeting the MDGs (shall we consider that the quadruple burden).
So, let’s compare and contrast: women, who get a greater share of precariat jobs have to deal with the triple burden (and a host of other issues such as abusive bosses, horrendous working conditions, and the violence they are more likely to experience… see Juarez); as Standing shows, men, on the other hand, pushed into the precariat, have to adjust to the blow to their masculinity. Allow me to not feel too bad. Downward mobility is never fun but the ledger is still a lot longer on women’s side.
The youth are another major category of the precariat. The Global South has very large young cohorts but the same cohorts in the Global North, while smaller in numbers, do not have it easy either. And part of the reason for that is something that really is at the heart of the precariat: the commodification of education. Standing does not mince his words or mask his contempt for the promoters of education-as-business:
“The neo-liberal state has been transforming school systems to make them a consistent part of the market society, pushing education in the direction of ‘human capital’ formation and job preparation. It has been one of the ugliest aspects of globalisation.
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 to the margins.
The education system is being globalised. It is brashly depicted as an industry, as a source of profits and export earnings, a zone of competitiveness, with countries, universities and schools ranked by performance indicators. It is hard to parody what is happening. Administrators have taken over schools and universities, imposing a ‘business model’ geared to the market. Although its standards have plunged abysmally, the leader of the global ‘industry’ is the United States. Universities tend to compete not by better teaching but by offering a ‘luxury model’ – nice dormitories, fancy sports and dancing facilities, and the appeal of celebrity academic, celebrated for their non-teaching achievements.
Symbolising the loss of Enlightenment values, in the United Kingdom in 2009, responsibility for universities was transferred from the education department to the department for business. The then business minister, Lord Mandelson, justified the transfer as follows: ‘I want the universities to focus more on commercialising the fruits of their endeavour… business has to be central’.
Commercialisation of schooling at all levels is global. A successful Swedish commercial company is exporting a standardised schooling system that minimises direct contact between teachers and pupils and electronically monitors both. In higher education, teacher-less teaching and ‘teacher-less classrooms’ are proliferating (Giridharadas, 2009). The Masschusetts Institute of Technology has launched Open Courseware Consortium, enlisting universities around the world to post courses online free of charge, including professors’ notes, videos and exams. The iTunes portal offers lectures from Berkeley, Oxford and elsewhere. The University of the People. founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, provides tuition-free (tuition-less) bachelor degrees, through what it calls ‘peer-to-peer teaching’ – students learning not from teachers but from fellow students, trading questions and answers online.
Commercialisers claim it is about ‘putting the consumers in charge’. Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems and an investor in the Western Governors University, which delivers degrees online, argued that teachers should re-position themselves as ‘coaches, not content creators’, customising materials to students while piping in others’ superior teaching. This commodification and standardisation is cheapening education, denuding the profession of its integrity and eroding the passing on of informal knowledge. It is strengthening winner-take-all markets and accelerating the dismantling of an occupational community. A market in human capital will increase emphasis on celebrity teachers and universities, and favour norms and conventional wisdom. The Philistines are not at the gates; they are inside them.” (68-9)
“This commodification of education is a societal sickness. There is a price to pay. If education is sold as an investment good, if there is an unlimited supply of certificates and if these do not yield the promised return, in terms of access to good jobs and high income with which to pay off debts incurred because they were nudged to buy more of the commodity, more entering the precariat will be angry and bitter. The market for lemons comes to mind. As does the old Soviet joke, in which the workers said, ‘They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work’. The education variant should be as follows: ‘They pretend to educate us, we pretend to learn’. Infantilising the mind is part of the process, not for the elite but for the majority. Courses are made easier, so that pass rates can be maximised. Academics must conform.” (71-2)
And so, community colleges and their multitudes of vocational, narrow certificates are declared the wave of the future. This commercialisation of education is coupled with two precarity traps: (1) a debt trap and therefore, (2) low-income trap in order to pay these debts. And that is on top of the internship explosion I have discussed elsewhere. Interns are part of the precariat and they may be grinners (if they are the privileged few who can afford to NOT work and get a prestigious internship) or groaners (if they have to work and intern at the same time, for degree requirements).
The precariatization of the youth puts them also in competition with another generation: the elderly (or, to use the British phrase, the old agers). And on this, Standing’s predictions are rather gloomy:
“It is the idea of retirement that will fade, along with the pension, which was suited to an industrial age. The reaction to the fiscal crisis has been to roll back early retirement schemes and age-related incapacity benefits, to lower state pensions, to push back the age at which people can claim a state pension and the age at which they can claim a full state pension. Contribution rates have been climbing and the age at which people can receive a pension has gone up, more for women than for men to approach equality. The number of years of contributions to gain entitlement to a state pension has gone up, with the number required to receive a full pension increasing even more. In some countries, notably in Scandinavia, the legal retirement age for eligibility for a state pension is now pegged to life expectancy, so that access to a pension will recede as people on average live longer and will recede with each medical breakthrough.
This amounts to tearing up the old social compact. But the picture is even more complex, for while governments are convinced that they are in a fiscal hole with pensions, they are worried about the effect of ageing on labour supply. Bizarre though it may seem in the midst of recession, governments are looking for ways of keeping older workers in the labour force rather than relying on pensions because they think there will be a shortage of workers. What better way to overcome this than to make it easier for old agers to be in the precariat.” (81)
And it is a double whammy: since more jobs are in the precariat, old agers are more likely to be placed in them (because they might not need a full income from a full time job, for instance, or they are no longer concerned with building a career), and because there are more old agers around, more jobs are created in the precariat. As a result, old agers employment rate did not decline with the 2008 recession.
In addition, the whole pension system is now being individualized through another risk shit as pension schemes are being replaced with individual 401k-type plans where individuals bear all the risk. This move, of course, was pushed for by governments in the Western countries and this has resulted in putting two generations in competition and the odds are not in favor of the young. Governments have been instrumental in three ways, according to Standing, in fostering this intergenerational competition:
- Governments have subsidized investments in private pension plans with tax incentives, which is guaranteed to increase inequalities as only those who have enough disposable income can afford to properly fund a 401k or an IRA or any of such kind of plans. And those old agers who have access to pensions can then afford to take jobs that have low wages, thereby exercising a downward pressure on wages.
- Governments, such as in Japan, actively encourage firms to retain older employees or recruit them back, again using tax schemes and subsidies, at low status, no seniority.
- The anti-discrimination protections for old agers and other forms of anti-age discrimination actually work to maintain old agers in the workforce.
And, of course, old agers do not require maternity leaves, child care arrangements, and other benefits that younger workers might need. The lower costs of older workers erode the bargaining power of younger workers.
And then, there is one last category in the precariat (migrants and other minorities are discussed later in the book): the incarcerated masses.
“The precariat is being fed by an extraordinary number of people who have been criminalised in one way or another. There are more of them than ever. A feature of globalisation has been the growth of incarceration. Increasing numbers are arrested, charged and imprisoned, becoming denizens, without vital rights, mostly limited to a precariat existence. This has had much to do with the revival of utilitarianism and a zeal for penalising offenders, coupled with the technical capacity of the surveillance state and the privatisation of security services, prisons and related activities.
Criminalisation condemns people to a precariat existence of insecure career-less jobs, and a degraded ability to hold to a long-term course of stable living. There is double jeopardy at almost every point, since beyond being punished for whatever crime they have committed, they will find that punishment is accentuated by barriers to their normal involvement in society.
However, there is also growth of a precariat inside prisons. We consider how China has resorted to prison labour in chapter 4. But countries as dissimilar as the United States, United Kingdom and India are moving in similar directions. India’s largest prison complex outside Delhi, privatised, of course, is using prisoners to produce a wide range of products, many sold online, with the cheapest labour to be found, working eight-hour shifts for six days a week. Prisoners with degrees can earn about US$1 a day, others a little less. In 2010 the new UK justice minister announced that prison labour would be extended, saying he wanted prisoners to work a 40-hour week. Prison work for a pittance has long been common in the United States. The precariat outside will no doubt welcome the competition.” (88)
This is very reminiscent of Loic Wacquant’s thesis of the neoliberal combination of workfare + prisonfare.