What is Precarity?

For many life feels increasingly precarious- it cannot be predicted or planned.

‘Precarity’ summarises the insecurity generated by living through perpetual instability:

It is about uncertainty and change.

It is a practical lived experience and an existential sense of being.

It is a political, economic and cultural process, and a social and psychological condition.

Some — like Guy Standing — even see precarity as being emblematic of a new, mass social class: the Precariat.

It potentially affects us all, albeit its impact is felt most greatly by those of us who hold the least social, cultural and economic resources as a defence against its effects.

Precarity is an ever increasing circle- it feeds off and perpetuates itself. It is without doubt about a practical lack, in particular this is about weak access to stable employment, income and housing alongside a withdrawal of any social safety net under the auspices of ‘austerity’. Yet these tangible aspects are packed inside an over-arching sense of fear of disruptions, potential harms and risk as engendered through ‘terror’, ‘others’, war and climate change.

Everything then begins to feel precarious, and in the UK, for a populace governed by the ideologies of market fundamentalist politics since the late 1970s, it is up to the individual to manage these risks. If you are not successful, popular culture and politics are clear, it is you personally that is to blame for any failure- you have likely not ‘aspired’ enough or maintained positive thoughts and mantras. If you’ve played by all the rules and things still haven’t worked out, it is your poorer neighbours to blame for soaking up resources. They might be ‘dole scroungers’ or ‘unwanted migrants’.

This is all what it is to experience precarity and this creates a dangerous space for extremist views that promise answers, rules and order. The ‘sirens of populism’ as Guy Standing calls them.

Much of this subjection to economic precariousness is not new; many claim that precarity is a ‘restoration project’, creating a return to an earlier form of capitalism before hard fought for concessions were given to the working class post WW2. Indeed, not all precarity went away with the expansion of welfare state securities; it was always experienced by those who were most excluded and marginalised. That we ‘hear of it more now’ may be due to who it is starting to draw in, as processes of precariousness widen their net. When ‘the respectable working class’ and middle class are affected and speak up we may be more likely to hear.

Creeping precarity is demonstrated in a recent report by the British Psychoanalytic Council which identified a 77% increase in the presentation of complex cases and which purports that, given the insecure nature of many practitioners’ contracts, professionals themselves are struggling to cope.

The movement of debt onto the shoulders of individuals, in the form of credit, large mortgages and student loans has sustained the economy and protected the wealthy while creating a populace of indentured workers with little choice but to work on, taking whatever poor work is available. The demands of this, alongside the constant terror alert and our technological dependence, leads some to claim we live in a society characterised by emergency; ‘the result is a kind of frenetic inactivity: we are caught in a cycle of non-stop inertia.’

We are all personally liable; we carry the whole burden of responsibility for our success and happiness in a society economists increasingly claim to be vastly unequal. It is young people — those generations facing the need to make transitions with none of the social protections afforded their parents — who risk the greatest precarity.

All this occurs as we constantly monitor ourselves and monitor each other. Examples of this include the insidious current Barclays adverts that helpfully inform young people to police themselves in their personal activities as future employers could always be watching. Be aware, perform and be alert young people are told- this is all down to you not structural complexity and change.

Such are the trends of precarity that some declare that the precarious now form their own class. Guy Standing sees this Precariat as a disparate group, predominantly young and with weak relations to the labour market ; making them ‘denizens’ not ‘citizens’. Mike Savage dedicates a chapter of his new book Social Class in the 21st Century to the ‘precarious precariat’, who are identified as low in all of Bourdieu’s social, cultural and economic capitals. In this reading of precarity Savage et al see the ‘precariat’ as a ‘preferable’ term to the ‘underclass’ for those who have been excluded ‘from the mainstream’, and hope its use will reduce the stigma they (we) face.

Whatever means we use to define it, and whether we agree that trends of precariousness are so significant that they have created an entirely new class or not, precarity is a significant phenomenon that requires attention and debate.

Exactly what Uncertain Futures intends to do.