The term “precariat” conveys the idea that the old working class, the proletariat, has transmuted into a new social class where work and life are characterised by precariousness and risk.
While the old working class might have been poor and exploited, in the post war era at least, its members had jobs they could rely on. Not so for the precariat of the 21st century. Work and jobs have become fragmented and unstable and this flows through to how lives are fulfilled.
In his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, labour economist Professor Guy Standing says that youth forms the epicentre of the emerging precariat. Following a protracted education process accompanied by massive debt accumulation, young people find that entry points into the jobs for which they are primed for, are scarce or non-existent.
The trajectory for many is a series of casual and short-term jobs, with tenuous links to their education, and limited potential as stepping stones to the jobs they want. A few will take up unpaid internships with family support, and a sizable minority become unemployed. The traditional quest for independence is stifled with many remaining in the family home well into their twenties or later. Some may drift into a rootless existence, isolated from the mainstream.
The lack of suitable trajectories for a young, well educated population fuels dissatisfaction with the status quo, according to Standing. It arises out of thwarted aspirations for status, upward mobility, and stability through employment. For some, it is incurred by an itinerant and alienated existence. Resentments towards an aged populace with its past advantages and future needs of support may also play a part.
The long good bye to youth jobs
In the 1950s or 1960s, young people simply left school in their mid to late teens and got a job. Young men stepped into junior level jobs in business, into apprenticeships in manufacturing or jobs in primary industries. Young women went to work in offices, hospitals or factories often as a precursor to marriage. A few went on to colleges for specific training such as to become teachers, and a very small group went on to universities with a view to the “elite” professions.
But by 1978, high youth unemployment was entrenched and this has hardly changed in the last 34 years. The unemployment rate for 15 to 24-year-olds was around 12 per cent in September 1978 and was 12 per cent in September 2012. This is much better than the youth unemployment rates in the EU at 21 per cent or the USA at 17% but far above the national average for Australia of around 5%. It is close to the global average youth unemployment rate.
The “problem” of youth unemployment from the 1970s was attributed to lack of skills and qualifications. The “solution” to youth unemployment has focused on education and training for the jobs emerging in the post-industrial economy.
To this end, higher education and vocational training have been encouraged in public policy resulting in massive increases in school completion and post-school education participation. Early school leaving has been actively discouraged. Income support policy demands that young people without year 12 undertake training in order to qualify for Youth Allowance.
While decent education for all is always a desirable social objective, its link to decent work outcomes for all has been progressively difficult to sustain. Social stratification in education as documented in the Review of Funding for Schooling, is a byproduct of this dynamic and leads to stratified outcomes in employment.
The new dangerous class?
The growth in precarious employment and a precariat class, Standing argues, is laying the foundation for social upheaval.
To some extent, it is expressed in events such as the EuroMayDay rallies and protests against the World Trade Organisation. It may also be part of the ferment of the Occupy movement. While notable and even significant, these demonstrations could hardly be characterised as a serious challenge to the forces of globalisation, neo-liberal economic policies, and corporate practices which have broken down the old employment models.
Other dangers may lie in the growth of far right, fringe political parties, which can consolidate grievances and resentments of a disenfranchised precariat into a support base, as suggested by Professor Standing. The success of the Golden Dawn party in the Greek elections in May 2012 exemplifies this potential.
But elsewhere the aspirations of the extremist political parties have been curtailed, with limited outcomes for the Le Front National in France and the Tea-Party in the USA in the 2012 elections. In Australia, there are no equivalent political forces at this time.
The real dangers of a precariat with a strong youth component perhaps lie elsewhere in Australia. A lack of opportunities for young people is simply a waste of their talents and skills at a time when Australia’s productivity and growth potential are under question.
In addition, the existence of a precariat is a hallmark of social inequality. As Wilkinson and Pickett argue with compelling evidence in the Spirit Level, countries with high levels of inequality simply do worse than more equal countries.
The precariat is created where opportunities for decent work have been eroded. So a core task for public policy is to restore a “decent work” agenda. The recommendations of the ACTU Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work would help to achieve this.
However, work and jobs may never be reconstituted as they were in the past. Standing proposes a new vision of citizen participation, and work and jobs, linked to provision of basic, unconditional economic security. While none of this is likely for the forseeable future, his ideas sustain some alternative visions for engaging and tapping the creative potential of a youthful – and not so youthful – precariat.
Links: University of Sydney seminar