In recent years there has been a boom in the academic discussion on ‘precarity’. The term, which first made its appearance in the 1970s, has acquired the status of a new political economic concept, even though it describes a familiar experience under capitalism. More importantly, as Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter have argued, precarity emerged as the central organising platform for a series of social struggles in Europe and beyond.
Unravelling Capitalism author Joseph Choonara has argued that we should pay closer attention to the connection between the concept that is purported to be behind a new political subjectivity and the economic phenomenon that it describes. How to measure precarity? This deceptively simple methodological question allows Choonara to challenge broad or unsubstantiated claims about the rise of precarity. In fact, any effort to ground these claims in the empirical evidence is frustrated by the fact that ‘precarity’ is used to conflate quite different categories of employment.
Precarity is often described as a typical post-Fordist phenomenon, rooted in important changes in the labour market that have occurred since the late 1970s: 1) the coexistence of different forms of employment, such as part-time, self-employed, or the notorious zero-hour contract; 2) the tenure of employment; and 3) the employees’ perception of job security.
The notion of precarity is hidden in all these changes, albeit not in a way that is self-evident. For instance, part-time contracts have allowed a higher number of women to enter the labour market, but there has been little change in the percentage of such contracts since the 1980s. Furthermore, most part-time contracts are stable, not precarious. The category of self-employment is often accused of hiding false self-employed workers who, working as sub-contractors or freelance for a single employer, rather than for multiple ones, enter into unfavourable relations of power and forsake their welfare rights. This category has seen a rise of two percent, now reaching 15 per cent of the UK labour force, but this would hardly translate into a massive increase in the precariat. Zero-hour contracts are perhaps the most exemplary type of precarious arrangements. One thinks of Uber or SportsDirect, both recently in the news, but these contracts are popular in particular in the accommodation and food services and health and social work sectors. Yet, they still account for a negligible percentage of the entire labour force, and many of these workers are students in full-time education.
We are working harder, and are often less autonomous in what we do.
Do employees keep their job for a shorter length of time, becoming an army of precarious workers? Hardly so. Job tenure has stayed relatively stable at eight years for the past generation, even during the height of the economic crisis (2008-2009). Most people seem to have full-time positions and stay in them a relatively long time, which raises the question of whether we have an exaggerated perception of the labour market changes in a post-Fordist era.
Perception of job security might have a lot to do with the increased intensity of the discussion on precarity. However, at close examination, this hypothesis is also problematic, says Choonara. “What we find is that the highest level of fear was most prevalent in the mid-1980s, and it has not returned to those levels since. Since then changes are modest and not all in the same direction across the period.”
If there is little evidence of a generalised explosion of insecurity about the prospect of continuing employment that does not mean that there is no insecurity. Duncan Gallie and others make a distinction between ‘job tenure insecurity’ and ‘job status insecurity’. The latter is the loss of features that employees find valuable in their work. This might be linked, according to Choonara, to an indisputable increase in job effort in the past decades and the stress related to it. We are working harder, and are often less autonomous in what we do. Other changes introduced since the onset of the financial crisis have amplified this sentiment: the reorganisation of work; restrictions to paid overtime; reduced access to training; reductions to non-wage benefits; change of roles; reductions to hours; enforced unpaid leave. These changes do make employees feel more precarious.
For Choonara, the painstaking effort to analyse the reliability of data about precarity not only leads one to be more cautious in economic terms about the phenomenon, but also to a political conclusion. It might well be the case that employers have tried to squeeze more productivity from their employees, rather than rendering them more precarious. Precarity might not be in capitalism’s best interests. However, organised labour has bought into this perceived chasm between stable and precarious employment. Labour faces attacks, says Choonara, but the irreversible march of precarity is not the main one.
Joseph Choonara presented his findings at the monthly Middlesex University Interdisciplinary Labour Studies Group seminar, which is organised by Dr Pizzolato and his colleagues Richard Croucher, Daniel Ozarow and Janroj Keles. The next will take place on the 13 April 2016 and feature Dr Janroj Yilmaz Keles speaking on ‘Social networks and return migration among highly skilled British-Kurdish young people‘.