Defining The Precariat

This is a first in a series of posts I intend to write as I work my way through Guy Standing‘s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.

First off, the precariat is not something that just happened (nothing ever does just “happen” in society) but something created as the result of socio-economic policies:

“In the 1970s, a group of ideologically inspired economists captured the ears and minds of politicians. The central plank of their ‘neo-liberal’ model was that growth and development depended on market competitiveness; everything should be done to maximise competition and competitiveness, and to allow market principles to permeate all aspects of life.

One theme was that countries should increase their labour market flexibility, which came to mean an agenda for transferring risks and insecurity onto workers and their families. The result has been the creation of a global ‘precariat’, consisting of many millions around the world without an anchor of stability. They are becoming a new dangerous class. They are prone to listening to ugly voices, and to use their votes and money to give those voices a political platform of increasing influence. The very success of the ‘neo-liberal’ agenda, embraced to a greater or lesser extent by governments of all complexions, has created an incipient political monster. Action is needed before that monster comes to life.” (1)

Standing notes that the precariat is already making itself somewhat heard in Europe through events such as EuroMayDay but apart from a few carnival-esque events, the precariat is not a social movement partly because of its lack of homogenity. Standing compares such demonstrations to the “primitive rebels” that appear at every great transformation as the social foundations of the old order are dismantled and there is yet nothing to replace them.

Precarization is also the child of globalization as traditional labor organizations in the Global North no longer have the power to impose some degree of social contract with employers after decades of outsourcing / off-shoring / delocalizing. As a result of the massive deindustrialization, the labor force of Western countries has found its status much less secure, not only as a result of the loss of secure jobs but also as a result of public policies designed to eliminate large segments of the social safety net, all as part of the Great Risk Shift.

One of the major aspects of neo-liberalism is an emphasis on flexibility, a multi-layered idea explained as such by Standing;

  • Wage flexibility: speeding up adjustments to changes in demand, especially downwards;
  • Employment flexibility: easy and costless ability of firms to change employment levels with reduction in employment security and protections;
  • Job flexibility: being able to move employees around and change job structure with minimal resistance or costs;
  • Skill flexibility: being able to adjust workers’ skills easily.


“In essence, the flexibility advocated by the brash neo-classical economists meant systematically making employees more insecure, claimed to be a necessary price for retaining investment and jobs. Each economic setback was attributed in part, fairly or not, to a lack of flexibility and to the lack of ‘structural reform’ of labour markets.

As globalisation proceeded, and as governments and corporations chased each other in making their labour relations more flexible, the number of people in insecure forms of labour multiplied. This was not technologically determined. As flexible labour spread, inequalities grew, and the class structure that underpinned industrial society gave way to something more complex but certainly not less class based.” (6)

So, what is the new class structure, according to Standing? For him, the social ladder looks something like this:

  • Elite: the absurdly rich global citizens, the transnational capitalist class, global power elite, masters of the universe and whatever else you want to call them;
  • Salariat: those still in stable, full-time employment, pensions, paid holidays, employers-provided benefits often subsidized by the state;
  • Proficians: or “professional technicians”, those who have skills they can market as professional consultants, freelancers, etc and who might actually enjoy moving around, from job to job;
  • Working class: as in the traditional working class for whom the welfare state was built but whose ranks have been decimated;
  • Precariat
  • Unemployed
  • Socially marginalized

These are classes and especially, the precariat may not be a class-for-itself but it is a class nonetheless, with class characteristics:

“[The precariat] consists of people who have minimal trust relationships with capital or the state, making it quite unlike the salariat. And it has none of the social contract relationships of the proletariat, whereby labour securities were provided in exchange for the subordination and contingent loyalty, the unwritten deal underpinning welfare states. Without a bargain of trust or security in exchange for subordination, the precariat is distinctive in class terms. It also has the peculiar status position, in not mapping neatly onto high-status professional or middle-class status occupations. One way of putting it is that the precariat has ‘truncated status.’ (8)

Crucial here is the fact that the precariat lacks all aspects of social security:

  • Labor market security: adequate income-earning opportunities, at best, government commitment to full employment.
  • Employment security: protection against arbitrary dismissal, regulations on hiring and firing.
  • Job security: ability and opportunity for a niche in employment, barriers to skill dilutions, opportunities for upward mobility in terms of status and income.
  • Work security: protection against accidents and illness at work through safety and health regulations, limits on working time and other such working conditions, and compensation for accidents.
  • Skill reproduction security: opportunity to gain skills through training, apprenticeship and opportunity for use of competencies.
  • Income security: assurance of an adequate stable income, protected through things like minimum wage laws, wage indexation, comprehensive social security and progressive taxation.
  • Representation security: right to collective bargaining or a collective voice in the labor market, independent unions and right to strike.

The precariat lacks all seven forms of security as well as the most secure forms of social income which is composed of the following :

  • Self-production (from family farm to household plot)
  • Money income
  • Family and community support
  • Enterprise benefits
  • State benefits
  • Private benefits (savings)

Each form of social income can be divided between forms that are more or less secure, but the precariat will always be on the less secure end of the spectrum in each category.

“A feature of the precariat is not the level of money wages or income earned at any particular moment but the lack of community support in times of need, lack of assured enterprise or state benefits, and lack of private benefits to supplement money earnings.


Besides labour insecurity and insecure social income, those in the precariat lack a work-based identity. When employed, they are in career-less jobs, without traditions of social memory, a feeling they belong to an occupational community steeped in stable practices, codes of ethics and norms of behaviour, reciprocity and fraternity.

The precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labour community. This intensifies a sense of alienation and instrumentality in what they have to do. Actions and attitudes derived from precariousness, drift towards opportunism. There is no ‘shadow of the future’ hanging over their actions, to give them a sense that what they say, do or feel today will have a strong or binding effect on the longer-term relationships. The precariat knows there is no shadow of the future, as there is no future in what they are doing. To be ‘out’ tomorrow would come as no surprise, and to leave might not be bad, if another job or burst of activity beckoned.” (13)

And so labor becomes instrumental (to earn a living), opportunistic (taking what comes) and precarious (insecure). I would add that governments might themselves encourage that kind of attitude when unemployment benefits become linked to accepting the first job offers, no matter what it is.

If precariat is a condition or state, precariatization (oh man, Jay Livingston is going to kill me for that ugly word!) is the process through which one becomes part of the precariat. According to Standing, a feature of this process is the recourse to meaningless, inflated titles or what he calls “fictitious occupational mobility” or “uptitling” that define going-nowhere jobs that conceal the precariatization of the job itself. The proliferation of job titles is a nice substitute for wage increases but also reflect increased organization complexities. As Standing states, “flattened job structures are concealed by title inflation.” (18)

But the precariat is not just a state related to a work situation. For Standing, it also shapes how one thinks and sees the world:

“The precariat is defined by short-termism, which could evolve into a mass incapacity to think long term, induced by a low probability of personal progress or building a career.


The internet, browsing habit, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and other social media are all operating to rewire the brain (Carr, 2010). This digital living is damaging the long-term memory consolidation process that is the basis for what generations of humans have come to regard as intelligence, the capacity to reason through complex processes and to create new ideas and ways of imagining.

The digitised world has no respect for contemplation or reflection; it delivers instant stimulation and gratification, forcing the brain to give most attention to short-term decisions and reaction.” (18-9)

Associated with that are the states of anger, anomie, anxiety and alienation that the precarized experience along with the lack of stability and predictability. Needless to say, this is a recipe for social instability and what I have called the new sociopathy. However, when you think about it, you can clearly who benefits from all this.  But it is impossible not to see precarization as a form of structural violence.

14 thoughts on “Defining The Precariat

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  3. Do you have a Twitter account?

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