The claim that work has become more precarious in recent decades has an intuitive appeal, at least among a layer of young people and activists. The concept of the “precariat,” playing on the old description of the working class as a “proletariat,” attempts to give empirical and sociological content to this intuition. The term has been widely disseminated by U.K. sociologist Guy Standing, whose book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class summarizes a long career of investigation into the changing nature of waged work.
As a proposed concept, the precariat raises three questions. First, has work around the world in fact become more precarious in the past few decades, in some empirically definable way? If so, do those who perform precarious labor constitute a “class,” in the sense of being a group that has a distinct structural position in modern capitalism, and which could potentially be unified under a single political banner? And, finally, what implications does increasing precarity have for the demands and strategies of workers and their organizations?
To the first question, I offer a qualified yes—qualified, because Standing’s definition of the precariat encompasses a multitude of forms of “precarity,” some more empirically verifiable than others. But the precariat is problematic as a class category, both because it attempts to draw together too many different heterogeneous strata of the population, and because it too strongly excludes segments of what Standing defines (too narrowly) as the working class, which still enjoy relatively stable and protected employment situations. I answer the final question with a caution. Standing raises important points about the subjective basis of progressive and pro-worker politics in the twenty-first century; while the precariat may not be the answer to the issues raised, we should not pretend that anyone else has an obvious answer either.