A shorter version was published on Blogcritics
I finished Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class thinking that the parts were rather more than the whole. There’s lots of fascinating statistics, facts and anecdotes, and the idea of the precariat – while already well established in general form in debates about casualisation and commodification of workers – is a useful one, but the author’s determination to fit without a particular political framework, to declare, with a specific set of technical meanings, that this is a new class, weakened rather than strengthened his arguments.
The definition of this class slips and slides all over the place. At one point Standing even seems to suggest that it includes “gays and lesbians [who] feel insecure in a society geared to heterosexual mores and standard nuclear families”. (p. 63) It includes the obvious migrant workers in low pay jobs in meat processing and care, but also, it seems, a 24-year-old social worker on £28K (reported in the Observer) who’s denied the chance to progress in her career, but has to wait for a post to become available. (p. 20). As the use of a newspaper case study as a key part of the argument in that case shows, it also has the feel of a very 21st-century cut and paste job, with inadequate digestion of the mass of material amassed. Nonetheless, I’d still call it as a well-worth-reading.
The accumulation of the statistics about the decline of the place of the working person is impressive, and depressing. The slide of the Nineties is obvious in US figures – the number of firms offering healthcare benefits fell from 69% in 2000 to 60% in 2009. But the decline had gone on longer – US employers paid 89% of retirement benefits contributions in 1980, 52% by 2006. (p. 42)
Quoting the National Strategic Skills Audit of 2010, England’s fastest growing jobs over the previous decade “included a few modern professions and crafts – conservation officers, town planners, psychologists and hairdressers – but mainly consisted of semi-professional jobs, such as paramedics, legal associates and teachers’ assistants.” (p. 40) Standing notes how entitlement to benefits is dependent on regular participation in the labour market, or a “breadwinner” in the household. Market demands had to be met to obtain a social income. (p. 41)
And there’s determination to force those on benefits into unattractive, unrewarding, hopelessly paid jobs. “Lawrence Mead, an American libertarian invited by Downing Street to advise the British government immediately after it was elected in 2010. His view of claimants is that ‘government must persuade them to blame themselves.” (p. 143)