A youthful precariat? (part-two)

Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley


Last month’s riots have intensified debate about the position of young people in society and the growth of a new urban underclass. For some, particularly Precariat author Guy Standing, the looting of shops and the confrontations with the police are another example of the actions of this new and dangerous ‘class in the making’ as millions of people face a ‘bits and pieces’ life of casual flexible and insecure employment, never able to build any real career identity (www.guystanding.com/images/stories/pdf/Stirrings-of-the-New-Dangerous-Class-Aug-2011.pdf).

It can’t be denied that the tide of globalisation has lowered wages, increased economic insecurity for many in society, not just a relatively small ‘underclass’. In addition, the post-war occupation pyramid has been pulled apart and the old manual/non-manual divisions are now submerged.  However it’s by no means certain that those who make up global capitalism’s insecure and dispossessed precariat can ever develop the common identity to become a class ‘for themselves’ in the way that Guy suggests. Even if this is the second time young people have taken to the streets in the last 10 months,  as we have  argued,  (radicaled.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/most-young-people-did-not-riot)  unity cannot be automatically assured.

It’s absurd to suggest  that threats of economic insecurity in the workplace have been overestimated in the way Socialist Worker’s Kevin Doogan considers (Has the crisis changed the nature of work? (www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=25766) For example, it’s quite wrong to assume that ‘redundancy’ statistics provide a real indication of the workings of the labour market.  Instead, they largely reflect what’s happening to ‘core’ work – the 40% plus of the labour force in full-time permanent jobs, enjoying regular employment benefits often with company or occupational pensions.

But thousands of workers have now become increasingly conditioned to accept that employment will only be temporary, are never included in redundancy statistics and are not eligible for redundancy pay offs – let alone being members of trade unions. Kevin is right to acknowledge the changing age profile of the workforce. However, while many older workers stay in the labour market an extra five years, many young people delay labour market entry and have to remain in education for much longer. Rather than this being necessary to learn new skills, it is more a situation of ‘education without jobs’ – something akin to time-serving or warehousing.

Yet, even effectively extending the period of adolescence by turning thousands of young people into ‘students’ is not enough to avert a crisis in labour market entry. Large numbers of young people continue to remain unemployed and many more, not in full time education or training, are recorded as ‘economically inactive’ – giving a real unemployment rate of more than 1 in 4 for the 18-24 age group. Large numbers are also ‘overqualified and underemployed’ – the work which they do, having little relation to the qualifications they bring with them to the labour market.

We do need to build campaigns against cuts in public services and those workers who enjoy pension rights need to take strike action to defend them. We also need to develop and promote specific policies and state intervention to guarantee employment and provide economic security, particularly for a generation of youth people not part of the organised labour movement that has represented many of their parents so well, if fears about a growing precariat are not to become a reality.

6 thoughts on “A youthful precariat? (part-two)

  1. Awesome. Many thanks for your stuff on the
    posting A youthful precariat? (part-two) radicaled: rethinking education, economy and society, they are certainly rather informative!
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  2. Four-fifths of UK workers are on permanent contracts, little changed from three decades ago. More of these may be fixed-term, but that does not necessarily mean they are less secure. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average number of years workers have spent with their current employer rose for men from 8.7 in 2001 to 9.1 in 2011, and for women from 6.7 to 7.9….
    Insecurity may have increased as a result the recession, seen for example in the growth of “zero-hours”contracts, in which workers can be given no hours and therefore no pay, up by 150 per cent to 200,000 compared with 2005 – though still a small proportion of the 30m-strong workforce.
    It is doubtful, though, whether insecure forms of work are increasing longer-term: temporary work has grown from 5.4 per cent to 6.4 per cent of all in employment since 2008 but is below the 7.9 per cent peak reached in 1997.

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