A Youthful Precariat ?

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley

Guy Standing’s challenging new book The Precariat seeks to explain the implications of globalisation for occupational class structures. Rather than remaining within the ranks of Marx’s proletariat; increasingly large numbers of people have now been pushed into a new and insecure ‘precariat’ – lacking adequate incomes and ‘security’ in the workplace, they are also without a ‘secure work-based identity’ (p9). Drawn from different sections of society, not simply Marx’s ‘lumpen proletariat’ or the unemployed;  members of the precariat  do not  feel part of the organised labour movement and on the contrary, are just as likely to be hostile to the  ‘privileges’ enjoyed by labourism’s   ‘core’.

Standing is not the first to question the leading role of the working class in the struggle for socialism. Over 30 years ago, in the controversial Farewell to the Working Class, Andre Gorz (1982) argued that changes in the production process had produced a majority ‘non class’ encompassing ‘all those who have been expelled from production… or whose capacities are under-employed as a result of the automation and computerisation of intellectual work.’ (Gorz 1980, 68) In comparison,  Standing considers  the precariat to be a ‘class in the making, increasingly able to identify what it wishes to combat and what it wishes to construct. ’ (p155)

Standing avoids the thorny issue of political representation however, particularly  confronting the contradiction  that if labour parties and trade unions are not able to deliver anything for the precariat; then who  is?  Indeed the divided nature of the precariat, Standing argues, increases the risk of increased support for right-wing extremism. Nevertheless, in the last section of the book –the most interesting – he sets out an alternative ‘politics of Paradise.’  At the centre of this is the notion of a guaranteed ‘social income’ for everybody. Something also promoted by Gorz – if from a slightly different  and more utopian perspective. (Gorz, 1985)  

Standing considers that young people not only represent the core of the emerging precariat but also that youth ‘will have to take the lead in forming a viable future for it’ (p66) The disappearance of what have been described as ‘youth jobs’ (Ainley and Allen 2010) is most visibly expressed in unemployment statistic -20% for the UK, but 40% for Spain. It is also the case as Standing recognises, that many more young people, particularly those highly qualified are ‘underemployed’ –and that there is a serious mismatch between the promises transmitted to young people through the education system and the stark realities of the labour market. (Ainley and Allen, 2010;  Brown, Lauder and Ashton, 2011)

Rather than being a creator of  human capital  ‘an education sold as an investment good that has no economic return for most buyers is, quite simply a fraud’(67).  Young people face their own ‘precarity trap’ – emerging from college and unable to obtain the jobs consistent with their level of qualifications they are forced to take temporary employment. This does not even start to pay off the debts they have acquired through prolonging their full-time education, yet the longer they stay in this type of employment, the less chance they have of escaping from this ‘losing track’ (74). The introduction of internships only provides opportunities for the select few.

New Labour spent over a decade arguing that  economic  security  could be guaranteed if young people  piled up educational credentials or ‘aimed higher’ for university. In many respects, Michael Gove and the Tories have a much clearer understanding of the dysfunctional nature of education and have tried to create a new much more realistic ‘correspondence.’  In particular they have sought to ‘price out’ the numbers attending university – in other words returning to a conception of higher education as something designed only for the minority; and to provide more direct vocational alternatives by expanding apprenticeships and workplace training for the majority.

The Tories education policies will only widen inequalities still further.  They are also unlikely to be able to persuade enough employers to create the apprenticeships that few of them need. Instead, as with the infamous youth training schemes of the 1980s, which critics characterised as ‘training without jobs,’ (Finn, 1987) many young people will enter ‘apprenticeships without jobs’ – schemes run by further education colleges and private sector training organisations.

As Standing recognises, youth must be central to any new politics. In the UK,  students have returned to the streets for the first time in 40 years, while  in Greece and now Spain, young people have headed more protracted protests against unemployment and austerity.  A new ‘politics’ of education must also be an important part of this process. Standing argues that the commodification of education must be combated and the ‘dumbing down’ of its content reversed.    More generally, learning has the opportunity to be ‘rescued’ as an activity ‘for its own sake.’ (159) and higher education reconstituted as a ‘leisure’ rather a ‘commercial’ activity.  This must not be assumed to imply a return to the elitist ‘liberal humanism’ of the past however (Allen and Ainley, 2007) A new class in the making also needs a new education in the making.

Standing’s  arguments about the ‘unattractiveness’ of labour movement organisations and culture to those who make up the precariat, particularly those young people who ‘see unions as protecting privileges of older employees they cannot anticipate for themselves’ should be taken seriously.  Nowhere more so than in the current campaign to protect teachers pensions.  To prevent their members being perceived  as a 21st century labour aristocracy;  teacher union demands  for  ‘students and parents to get involved to defend education’ for example, must  be linked to campaigns against tuition fees,  the abolition of EMAs; as well as to more concrete proposals for how education can be reformed in the interests of the dispossessed.


Allen, M   and   Ainley, P (2007)   Education make  you fick, innit?   London: Tufnell Press.

Ainley, P   and   Allen, M (2010)   Lost Generation?  New strategies for youth and education  London :  Continuum.

Brown, P   Lauder, H  and Ashton, D (2011) The  Global  Auction. The broken promises of education, jobs and incomes: Oxford University Press.

Finn, D (1987)   Training without jobs   London: Macmillan

Gorz, A (1982)   Farewell to the working class. London: Pluto

Gorz, A  (1985)  Paths to Paradise on the liberation from work. London: Pluto

Standing, G  (2011) The Precariat The new dangerous class. London Bloomsbury

3 thoughts on “A Youthful Precariat ?

  1. To paraphrase Marx:

    Considering, that against this combined power of the elite classes the primary producers or precariat cannot unite and act for itself except by constituting itself into a mass party-movement, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties and movements, that this constitution of the precariat into a mass party-movement is indispensable in order to ensure the emancipation of its labour power,

    That such labour power can be emancipated only when, at minimum, the precariat is in collective possession of all means of societal production, all commons, etc., that there are only two forms under which all means of societal production, all commons, etc. can belong to them or return to community:

    1) The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;
    2) The collective form the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society;


    That again this collective re-appropriation, or political and economic expropriation of the elite classes, can arise only from the direct action of the primary producers or precariat, organized in a distinct mass party-movement;

    Such permanent organization must be pursued by all the means the precariat has at its disposal.

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