Studying precarious work

December 20, 2017

Image: Dave Pearce via Flickr

Profound changes in paid employment have unfolded in recent decades, with serious consequences for millions of workers whose jobs, careers, and family lives have are been exposed to rising levels of risk. Though much of the attention has focused on the advanced capitalist societies, precarious work has also grown through Asia and much of the global south.

Involved here is the spread of work that is uncertain or insecure, in which risks are shifted from employers and governments to workers, and in which workers lack the legal protections and benefits that the standard work arrangement once offered.

Familiar examples of precarious work include temporary and contract work, but growing rapidly now are jobs in the “gig” or on-demand economy, “bogus” self employment in which workers are independent in name only. Working under these conditions can over time have adversely affect individuals, shaping workers’ trajectories in ways that can inflict lasting harm.

Workers often suffer income insecurity. They cannot know when they will be working, if at all. They have little or no access to job training or sick days. And they often feel like outsiders while on the job. Societal effects can also accumulate, as when the weakening of economic attachments drives the social and political instability that has surfaced in recent years, at times seeming to threaten the foundations of liberal democracy itself.

What is known about these developments? One set of answers can be found in Precarious Work, our just-published collection of original papers on the topic.

In editing this collection, we have sought to strengthen the theoretical and methodological foundations of this field, doing so by identifying key sources of variation in the precarization trend, not only in the United States, but also in Europe, Asia, and the developing world.

We have also sought to grasp the socio-demographic complexity of precarization, doing so by exploring racial and gender differences in exposure to it. In addition, we have tried to highlight the consequences of precarization for personal and family life, along with the policy alternatives that might protect workers from undue risk.

The rise of precarious work results from a combination of factors that are by now all too familiar: Globalization, digitalization, deunionization, and other structural trends. But as we make clear in our introductory chapter, these trends all have a common underlying source: neoliberal doctrines and practices, which define the dominance of market logic as a necessary condition for the pursuit of human freedom.

Neoliberalism has become a predominant force, steering economic activity around much of the world. Yet its link to the precarization of work has yet to receive systematic discussion. Although there are theoretically invested accounts such as Karen Ho’s Liquidated, which relies on a sophisticated application of Bourdieusian theory, much of the literature has managed to capture only the surface manifestations of precarious work, rather than its underlying causes.

Definitional confusion has understandably followed, and the role of racial and gender privilege – and the consequences that flow from the erosion of status hierarchies – have been too seldom explored. And our comparative grasp of the precarization trend has yet to move beyond its rudimentary state.

Though many scholars assume that European nations have erected important protections against precarious work, the validity of this claim remains a matter of sharp debate, as our volume makes clear.

The paper by David Brady and Thomas Biegart shows that social and economic dualism has grown quite pronounced in Germany, for example, as a gulf has opened up between still-protected insiders on the one hand, and the growing proportion of German workers who have been left outside the protected domain and stand exposed to the precarization trend. In her contribution, Valeria Pulignano goes further, arguing that class-based shifts in power across the EU landscape have given rise to what she terms an overarching “regime of competition,” pressing market logic and practices into the sinews of European institutions.

In his multi-level analysis of 32 European nations, Quan Dang Hien Mai stresses the varied nature of the precarization trend. Exposure to precarious forms of employment varies sharply, he finds, depending on the labor market policies that given nations adopt. In her paper on the methodological challenges of studying precarious work, Anna Kiersztyn provides an excellent example of the kind of carefully calibrated study we need to test broad theoretical arguments of the sort that our volume hopes to advance.

The collection seeks to expand the boundaries of the debate beyond the global north, however, offering important forays into the developing world. Especially valuable here are the studies by Michael Rogan and his colleagues, on how liberalization has reshaped informal work in the Global South, and by Rahul Suresh Sapkal and K. R. Shyam Sundar, who use survey data to capture trends on the Indian continent. The latter authors find that the politics of liberalization have fostered an increase in precarious work within the formal sectors of the Indian economy, only adding to the wider hardships of informal work.

The Fordist employment relation of long-term and relatively high-wage work with a single company was, it is vital to recall, a highly selective arrangement that often excluded women and people of color. Building on this point, several contributors explore how the precarization trend has affected workers across gender and racial lines. Enobang Hannah Branch and Caroline Hanley show how gender and race have historically combined to affect exposure to non-standard employment. Christine Williams shows how hostility toward women even in relatively good jobs (as among engineers in the energy sector) negatively affects the work situations of women, who stand especially vulnerable during economic downturns.

The papers in Precarious Work also show how exposure to labor market uncertainty over time reaches deep in intimate life and personal well-being. Sharon Zukin and Max Papadantonakis show how business corporations and trade associations in the high tech sector have essentially colonized many of the rituals that are often shared within the occupational community of computer programmers. Companies have increasingly appropriated “hackathons,” those creative marathons through which programmers perfect, share, and celebrate their craft. Now informed by the kind of entrepreneurial thinking that large corporations seek to harness, hackatons seem to idealize risk, to legitimate the performance of upaid work, and to frame capitalism as a vehicle for benevolent social change and personal fulfillment.

The Zukin and Papadantonakis study is important since it reveals the political functions that occupational identity has increasingly assumed in an era marked by change and uncertainty in the economic landscape. Aliyah Hamid Rao adopts a similar view, showing how elite early-career contract workers employed by the UN go to extraordinary lengths, rearranging their personal lives for years in the effort to position themselves for the permanent positions they so desperately desire.

Concern for mental and physical well-being also extends into personal and family life. Dirk Witteveen shows how labor market instability influences the career pathways of entrants to the labor market over time. When women, racial-ethnic minorities, and members of subordinate classes are exposed to precarious work early in their careers, the effects can persist for years, even leaving symbolic scars.

Precarious work also influences family formation. Sojung Lim shows that men who work in part-time jobs, or to the lack of benefits, are substantially more likely to delay a first marriage. As in Japan, working in bad jobs matters more for men, though women in part-time nonstandard jobs also experience marriage delays.

There is little reason to believe that the forces fostering precarious work will abate anytime soon. Globalization and dynamic technological change are inexorable forces characterizing the 21st century. However, the political, economic and social responses to these forces are not inevitable. Just as the adoption of neoliberal policies reflected political shifts in the balance of power among workers and employers, so too will political contests shape the reactions of workers and their allies in various parts of the world.

We expect that the phenomena studied by Michael Gibson-Light, on how workers in ambiguous employment statuses struggled to gain formal rights and protections, will become increasingly central as awareness of precarization grows sharper over time. Struggles over the legal categories that define formal employment, and the regulatory and social insurance systems that accompany it, are all up for grabs. Indeed, we expect that the struggles documented by Gibson-Light, exploring the liminal situation of prison inmates and culture industry workers, will become increasingly central as battles are fought over employment law generally.

The centrality of work to human existence argues powerfully in favor of research on these struggles, the battle lines they imply, and the outcomes the combatants envision. At stake are the lives and identities not only of workers, but also of their families, communities, and all of us who dwell in the shadow of market forces today.

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