65. The Precariously Employed – that’s you, today or tomorrow – A Search for a New World Order


This is a work in pro­gress. Revi­sion and exten­sion is likely. The topic is immense, but immensely impor­tant. Ideas and con­tri­bu­tions are wel­come.  –  Thor





1. From the late 18th Cen­tury in Europe lead­ing thinkers became aware that the basic pat­tern of their soci­eties was chang­ing beyond recog­ni­tion. The changes related closely to the inven­tion of pow­ered engi­nes and pre­ci­sion engi­neer­ing, indus­tri­al­iza­tion, the move­ment of peo­ples from the coun­try to the city, the spread of edu­ca­tion, the Enlight­en­ment and emer­gence of sci­en­tific think­ing, and many other fac­tors. Over the fol­low­ing cen­tury ide­olo­gies such as Cap­i­tal­ism, Social­ism, Com­mu­nism, Fas­cism, neo-Theoc­racy, elec­tive Democ­racy, pay-as-you-go-Plu­toc­racy etc grad­u­ally became formed into polit­i­cal move­ments and shaped the world we live in today. None of them were espe­cially good solu­tions for human devel­op­ment, and the wars which fol­lowed in their wake were dev­as­tat­ing.

2. Most peo­ple today assume that the social pat­terns and ide­olo­gies we have inherited from the past two cen­turies are now set in stone. There is “no other way” they feel. Yet real human orga­ni­za­tion has con­tin­ued to change beyond recog­ni­tion. The Inter­net and elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions have altered the very way we think. The pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of goods and ser­vices flow across bor­ders at ever increas­ing speeds. The mean­ing of money itself, how it is cre­ated and dis­trib­uted, is only weakly related to the finan­cial world of a cen­tury ago, though most peo­ple do not under­stand this.

3. Above all, the mean­ing of labour now has lit­tle to do with the descrip­tions found in old text­books, or the notions of labour which politi­cians and jour­nal­ists make fic­tion sto­ries about on a daily basis. A man mak­ing wid­gets with a lathe can have his out­put mea­sured in some equa­tion of “pro­duc­tiv­ity”. This is what the text books talk about. Yet how do you mea­sure the pro­duc­tiv­ity of knowl­edge work­ers? Nobody knows. You have the entre­pre­neur whose ideas and drive cre­ate a vast busi­ness, or the gifted teacher who inspires stu­dents, or the musi­cian whose music mil­lions lis­ten to. These peo­ple are not replace­able cogs. They rep­re­sent the major cap­i­tal of enter­prises which col­lapse when they depart. The rewards they earn vary wildly, from near star­va­tion to the stratos­phere, because there is no met­ric to mea­sure their real con­tri­bu­tion.

4. Con­tem­po­rary insti­tu­tions at every level are con­trolled by a man­age­ment class, osten­si­bly on behalf of the own­ers of cap­i­tal and a rul­ing elite. This man­age­ment class is broadly hier­ar­chi­cal, with claims to a gen­er­al­ized skill set in the orga­ni­za­tion of other peo­ple. The man­age­ment class has been a con­scious cre­ation since the end of World War 2. The agenda of these peo­ple, behind a bliz­zard of mis­sion state­ments and ‘plans’, is the per­pet­u­a­tion of their own man­age­rial exis­tence. Over­whelm­ingly any effi­cien­cies they cre­ate have been directed to self-reward. Attempts to rate the real effec­tive­ness of man­agers strike real dif­fi­cul­ties since com­pe­tent lead­er­ship is hard to quan­tify. Nev­er­the­less recent attempts which have been made rate the num­ber of gen­uinely com­pe­tent man­agers at around 10% of the whole. The equa­tions of most stan­dard eco­nomic mod­els can­not prop­erly account for the con­tri­bu­tions, rewards and costs of a large man­age­ment class.

5. And then we have the “pre­cariat” – hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple for whom the idea of life­time employ­ment has become a mirage. If they work at all, it is part-time, or on short term con­tracts, or in inter­mit­tent jobs, and so on. In polite com­pany they often describe them­selves as “self-employed”. There is no sin­gle unit­ing qual­ity to these peo­ple, except their inse­cu­rity. Some have PhDs, some can­not read or write func­tion­ally. Some have great energy, some are lazy. Some are enter­pris­ing but unlucky. Many would be per­fectly good work­ers if told what to do in a secure job, as their fathers and moth­ers did. These hun­dreds of mil­lions are found in every con­ti­nent and coun­try, from rich coun­tries to poor. Yet through no fault of their own, most of these peo­ple will never secure long term employ­ment. Only a minor­ity are needed as fac­tory and office fod­der. They will never be able to obtain the mort­gage for a house, or plan for their retire­ment on a pen­sion, or save for their children’s edu­ca­tion or expect reg­u­lar paid hol­i­days. They are the mar­ginal peo­ple. The grand social con­tract has passed them by. The story of belong­ing to a shared and fair com­mu­nity has passed them by. Fine words about democ­racy and all the rest ring hol­low in their ears. They are the pre­cariat with lit­tle to lose.

6. The rul­ing elites of the 19th Cen­tury were ter­ri­fied of the new work­ing classes and finally bought them off with social wel­fare pro­grams (Chan­cel­lor Otto von Bis­marck in Ger­many first hit on this). Now the rul­ing elites of the 21st Cen­tury are ter­ri­fied of the Pre­cariat. The elites know inse­cure peo­ple are dan­ger­ous, they know that pre­cariat num­bers are over­whelm­ing. Yet the elites, the acad­emy, and the com­men­tariat have no the­ory, no lan­guage, no model to han­dle the pre­cariat. As a tem­po­rary dis­trac­tion while they work out what to do, the rul­ing elites, and their town criers in the media, have called up a sto­ry­line about ter­ror­ism and cre­ated the Secu­rity State. This is just blow­ing smoke in our eyes, and their own. They don’t know what the next step is. With their minds dead­ened by an uncrit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, few even under­stand that the old cat­e­gories of raw mate­ri­als, cap­i­tal, labour etc play only one lim­ited part in our com­plex present world. Com­mon lan­guage dis­guises the real­i­ties in plain sight. In fact, what we have are Inse­cu­rity States and a swirling pre­cariat. We await a prophet to make it all clear, and explain a way for­ward.




7. Very often the most per­ilous solu­tion to com­plex human issues is to insist on “a solu­tion”, one solu­tion. Each new emperor (read politi­cian) claims to have the solu­tion to the prob­lems of the day, and occa­sion­ally like China’s infa­mous emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (秦始皇 221 BC) buries the old schol­ars alive and burns the books. In a sim­i­lar way, his­tor­i­cally each reli­gion has claimed a monopoly on the way, the truth and the light, and when secure in the favour of some Cae­sar, has incin­er­ated the oppo­si­tion on bon­fires, put them to the sword or cursed them for eter­nity in some very hot super­nat­u­ral hell. The Marx­ist-Com­mu­nist ide­o­logues of the 20th Cen­tury like­wise reigned by ter­ror and sent skep­ti­cal souls to rot in gulags. As we know, fun­da­men­tal­ist Cap­i­tal­ists are still pro­vok­ing wars in the name of free enter­prise, plun­der­ing the lives of whole gen­er­a­tions of ordi­nary peo­ple with bank­ing piracy, and deploy­ing coer­cive “diplo­macy” to sup­press any signs of chal­lenge to their “neo-lib­eral” grand solu­tion.

8. With all these cau­tion­ary tales in mind, the last thing we should hope for is an ide­o­log­i­cal solu­tion to the vast chal­lenge posed by the Pre­cariat. We can look for pat­terns, and some­times by ask­ing non-con­ven­tional ques­tions we may find hints of causes and paths to explore. Many of the best answers will be local to par­tic­u­lar con­di­tions, or spe­cial to unique sub-groups of peo­ple. We can con­ceive of a class of social, eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems which have salience for the Pre­cariat as a whole. Some thought­ful peo­ple may even make a career from ana­lyz­ing these issues on a broad scale. What we must resist from the out­set though is the lat­est ambi­tious politi­cian, hav­ing dis­cov­ered this new word Pre­cariat, turn­ing up on Mon­day morn­ing with a sin­gle, deadly solu­tion and a new ide­ol­ogy.






Adonis, James (2013) “I’m bored wit­less – plight of the overqual­i­fied”. Bris­bane Times, online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/small-business/blogs/work-in-progress/i-am-bored-witless-20130531-2nfbe.html#ixzz2V1GnCzqa

Alia (Sep­tem­ber 3rd, 2013) “Is a col­lege degree worth­less in today’s China?” Off­beat China blog, online @ http://offbeatchina.com/is-a-college-degree-worthless-in-todays-china

Bachelard, Michael (3 Novem­ber 2013) “No more mon­key busi­ness as gov­er­nor steps in”. The Bris­bane Times, online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/no-more-monkey-business-as-governor-steps-in-20131101-2wsdw.html

Chom­sky, Noam (5 August 2012) “Plu­ton­omy and the Pre­cariat”. Huff­in­g­ton Post, online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/noam-chomsky/plutonomy-and-the-precari_b_1499246.html

Govan, Fiona (2013) “Three degrees, yet I clean a lava­tory – the tale of Spain’s lost gen­er­a­tion”. Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald, online @ http://www.smh.com.au/world/three-degrees-yet-i-clean-a-lavatory-the-tale-of-spains-lost-generation-20131002-2urqo.html#ixzz2gYTR4fb3

Guy Stand­ing (n.d.) The Pre­cariat Face­book page. Face­book, online @ https://www.facebook.com/ThePrecariat [expla­na­tion: the soci­ol­o­gist, Guy Stand­ing has defined what he calls a new social class, the Pre­cariat. The rest of us call these peo­ple the inse­curely employed. They now form a large part and increas­ing of the work­force in most coun­tries, even amongst the highly edu­cated. Stand­ing has rec­og­nized that gov­ern­ments ignore this group of peo­ple, a socially per­ilous over­sight. He has been giv­ing lec­tures world­wide for sev­eral years on the sub­ject]

Guy Stand­ing (9 July, 2013) “Pre­cariat And Peas­ant: Refram­ing Social Pro­tec­tion For The 21st Cen­tury”. SOAS Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don, inau­gu­ral address, online video @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTudjB4T7Xw

Guy Stand­ing (19 April 2013) “Defin­ing the pre­cariat”. Eurozine, online @ http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2013–04-19-standing-en.html

Guy Stand­ing (2012) “The pre­cariat is you and me”. The Drum, Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Com­mis­sion, online @ http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3820486.html

Guy Stand­ing (24 May 2011) “The Pre­cariat – The new dan­ger­ous class”. Pol­icy Net­work web­site, online @ http://www.policy-network.net/pno_detail.aspx?ID=4004&title=+The+Precariat+%E2%80%93+The+new+dangerous+class

Guy Stand­ing (2011) “The Pre­cariat and Basic Income”. online @ http://www.guystanding.com/files/documents/forum_poverta_napoli_-_guy_standing.pdf || also The Pre­cariat – the new dan­ger­ous class. (book) Blooms­bury Aca­d­e­mic, online @ http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/The-Precariat/book-ba-9781849664554.xml

Karol (9 Octo­ber 2013) “Inse­cure work in NZ’s pre­cariat”. The Stan­dard, online @ http://thestandard.org.nz/insecure-work-in-nzs-precariat/

Lee Chang-gon (March 27, 2013) “Kore­ans’ unhap­pi­ness is related to insta­bil­ity”. The Han­ky­oreh news­pa­per, online @ http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/579979.html

Stra­chan, Maxwell (22 Octo­ber 2013) “Here Are 5 Mil­lion Peo­ple That The U.S. Econ­omy Has Aban­doned”. Huff­in­g­ton Post, online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/22/missing-workers-unemployment-rate_n_4142536.html?utm_hp_ref=business

Weiss­mann, Jor­dan (Oct (9 2013) “1 in 5 U.S. Work­ers: I’m Too Edu­cated for My Job – Actu­ally, that’s not so bad, by inter­na­tional stan­dards”. The Atlantic, online @ http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/10/1-in-5-us-workers-im-too-educated-for-my-job/280441/

Weiss­mann, Jor­dan (Feb­ru­ary 20, 2013) “The Ph.D Bust: America’s Awful Mar­ket for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts”. The Atlantic, online @ http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/the-phd-bust-americas-awful-market-for-young-scientists-in-7-charts/273339/

Wang Zhuo­qiong (13 Novem­ber 2013) “Sur­vey: Chi­nese Work­ers Just Not Engaged”. China Daily, online @ http://www.Chinadaily.Com.Cn/China/2013–11/13/Content_17100147.Htm



Pro­fes­sional bio:

Thor May – cit­i­zen of the world (this one), born: 1945, exit: unknown; Writer, lec­turer, researcher, edi­tor (fix­ing funny Eng­lish), teacher, teacher trainer (Eng­lish lan­guage & lin­guis­tics). http://thormay.net for com­men­tary, arti­cles, lin­guis­tics papers, poetry, pho­tos, video, teach­ing mate­ri­als, CV, pub­li­ca­tion list, and other con­fetti. Other Word­Press blogs: see http://thormay.net/thorsblogs.html. Edit­ing ser­vice http://thormay.net/fancy/pfl1.html. Aca­d­e­mic arti­cles & papers at http://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay

Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972).

con­tact: http://thormay.net   thormay@yahoo.com

All opin­ions expressed here are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.


The Pre­car­i­ously Employed ©Thor May 2013; all rights reserved

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