Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The rise of the ‘precariat’ and need to rethink jobs

With news sources replete with ideological battles over jobs and job losses, fundamental questions about the changing nature of work are rarely asked. However, in sociology, many scholars have noted a shift from traditional salaried work (which arrived on the scene in the Western world post the Industrial Revolution and even more so with the rise of the middle class from the 1950s onward) to more “precarious" forms of work. This precarious form of work that used to be endemic among lower socioeconomic classes is now a predominant feature of most rungs of the economy. Surely, those at the top are better protected, but it is the large and rising middle that is newly experiencing the effects of this major transformation in economies globally over the decades.

Macro shifts in world economic systems, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of state capitalism in China and the de-industrialization of much of the advanced Western world, have contributed to the types of insecure work that are now available to people.

The arrival of the digital revolution towards the end of the twentieth century, and what is now being called “the fourth industrial revolution", spanning artificial intelligence, promises further disruption.

The halcyon era of an ideal four-member nuclear family (parents with two children), with a salaried male breadwinner supporting this unit, was an unarguably short phase even in the industrialized world. It is worth noting that this ideal was never universally achieved and even the ideal of decent, assured work with stability and security was a privilege restricted only to a few. Western Europe could be credited for implementing the ideal of the welfare state to the farthest extent. In the rest of the world, people always had to “hustle" for work to make ends meet, whether it was through precarious self-employment, casual daily wage work or odd-jobbing. Today’s equivalent terms are temps, part-time, casuals and freelancers.

The two related ideas of “job" and “career" were also a product of the post-industrial revolution period, emerging with the expansion of factory work but more so with white-collar work that came to represent the “true" middle class, with an appropriate accoutrement of cultural capital. A career provided an identity and meant that one would progress or rise in the same line of work over a period of time, the rise being a function of an in-built system of promotions that was tied to years spent and experience gained as one moved upward. The sociologist Guy Standing argues that in the contemporary world the concept of a career has nearly disappeared. Outside of the shrinking public sector, there are few people who can dream of a career in a chosen profession or line of work.

Standing argues that a much larger proportion of the population today performs precarious work—work that is neither secure nor assured for any length of time. The work day as imagined earlier has faded from view. The “precariat" often has to work not one or two but sometimes even three jobs to make ends meet. A crucial feature of such work is the lack of control a worker has over her time. Jobs—or rather work—are “on demand", as in the rapidly expanding platform economy. One could argue that the Uber driver now has far more control over his time and how he wishes to divide his time between work, family and leisure. This view depicts the worker as having a choice over crucial areas of her or his life that she earlier did not have in the regular 8-10 hour working day, tied to a specific workplace. Yet, this is not quite true. There is an unpredictability and precariousness about such work in terms of meeting one’s income goals in the platform economy. A driver cannot predict how many hours and more importantly over what duration of time he would be able to meet his weekly or monthly income goals. Would these hours be during the day or night, at a stretch or spread out? Whether he would be able to bathe, change, go home, spend time with the family, etc., is not in his control; would he be able to pay his children’s school fees regularly? Many Uber drivers end up spending long periods away from home and in the car, even when not logging reimbursable miles.

The term ‘gig economy’ captures this state of affairs much better than the more positive-sounding “sharing economy". The new definitions of “employer" as a mere intermediary or facilitator and “employee" as entrepreneur, as promoted by the gig economy, are entirely fake; an unmoored relationship with no mutual rights and obligations.

It is not just the platform economy that is assailed by this particular problem, but work in general has become more casualized—or “feminized", as Donna Haraway asserts.

Whether it is high-end type of work, such as that of architects or graphic designers—or even the teaching profession that once used to be considered the epitome of stability and security—or low-end work such as the now (ill)famed pakora maker or chowkidar, the lack of guarantee of a stable income with social security has devastating consequences for humans lives. Given the enormous variation in how people are forced to work today, how does one count jobs or estimate work? One needs a new sociology and ethnography of work to discard the erroneous and misleading debates around jobs created or lost, and evaluate livelihoods more comprehensively.

Ravinder Kaur is a professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi

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