Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The rise of the precariat

The temptation during the bubble years (say, 1995 to 2007) was to think that the class war was over. Tony Blair, indeed, declared as much.

It isn't.

As any half-decent economic historian or sociologist will tell you, one facet of life is the competition for resources under scarcity. That's a highly structured, hierarchical and above all historical process that happens under conditions of unequal access to interest, property, inheritance and connection. It's to some immutable in human society.

The form is takes right now might well be the rise of the 'precariat'. It's a phrase coined by the sociologist Guy Standing of the University of Bath, and it's highly relevant in a world where secure, well-paid, pensioned jobs are becoming, and will become, an ever rarer species.

What does it mean? Well, imagine you're 17. What have you got ahead of you if you're relatively academically able, moderately dynamic, quite self-starting? Probably university - and a big tuition fee debt if you're not from a low-income household. Then years of internships (possibly working for free or on expenses), short-term contracts and then maybe, just maybe, you'll get a permanent professional job by the time you turn thirty. Then it'll be time to pay off your (say) £40,000 to £50,000 debt. Your employer might provide you with a pension. But even then it won't be one of those final salary deals, where you disappear into the sunset with a proportion of your annual pay when you leave at 60 or 65. Oh no. It'll be a money purchase deal, where you basically get out what you put in, topped up by your employer and by interest. You'll probably be about half as well off as your parents when you're a more senior citizen. And all the while you'll be living in a small terraced house that across large swathes of the South cost you say four to six times your income at £200,000 to £300,000 (if you're lucky) while your non-graduate and apparently relatively low-earning parents live in a massive four or five bedroom semi or detached pile. Intergenerational warfare? You bet.

That's the middle class picture - not so rosey. But still liveable. If you're from a low income background, a less-than dynamic part of the UK, you're not inclined to take on £50,000 in student loan debts, or your skills lie away from the white-collar arena, then things look even less bright. You're going to earn, well, not very much; move from rented home to rented home (while rents rise quite steeply); and you're going to be patronised all the time for being feckless and weak while you're about it. The struggling middle classes won't be in any mood to let the ladder down, and they simply won't be able or wish to believe how little you earn when they can hardly set around Sainsbury's (or fill up at a petrol pump) without running out of money. Focus group evidence already suggests that the wealthy simply cannot or will not believe how low average earnings are. Expect this to escalate as the squeeze tightens.

What makes these two groups similar is their precarious grip on economic life - on respectability, on self-esteem, on their place in the social hierarchy. Slip just a little, whether it's from your contract job in advertising during your late twenties or your building traineeship in your late teens, and it's a long, long way down - psychologically as much as anything.

Ed Miliband had one of his rare political and intellectual successes when he talked about the 'squeezed middle'. He was pretty much describing people in the first of the groups I've described. His speechwriters' insight is going to get a lot more apposite in the years to come. But as Standing has argued, he needs to widen his analysis to the 'squeezed bottom' as well. The rise of the precariat, with all their fears, insecurities, struggles and interests, might well be the social story of the next twenty years. Linking the struggles of managers and workers might provide a way to forge a genuinely 'new' political ideal.

Can progressive politics speak to the precariat, as it seems to be doing in Japan? Or will they be captured by a rhetoric and a politics of fear and desperation? The answer to that question will be momentous indeed.

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