In a recent op-ed piece for the New Left Project, Ross Perlin traced the recent rise and evolution of the now all-too-familiar figure of the precariously employed worker. Beginning with the transformations of labour in the West over the last fifteen years, he offers a clear-sighted look at the "coming undone" and, by now, virtual disappearance of the traditional entry-level office employee and his career trajectory. In its place, he notes, employers have come to increasingly substitute various and varying forms of temporary pseudo-employment, all of which have become normalized over the years and quietly accepted both by workers as the norm, and by many recent grads as what to expect upon entering the workplace.
The 9-to-5 caricature-commuting, punching a time card, occupying a cubicle, navigating the office hierarchy, playing out a whole career in a single line of work at one or just a few firms-has been coming undone for years. The Baby Boomers, our parents, could afford to revolt against work. Many of them reacted, rightly, against the deep undercurrents of racism, sexism, environmental destruction, and conformism they associated with "standard employment". They could turn on, tune in, and drop out with reasonable certainty that jobs and careers would still be waiting for them.
The Boomers were the product of postwar prosperity, labour-management accord, strong social welfare networks, and a massive push for free universal higher education. The neoliberal world that we their children face could hardly be more different. Virtually overnight the labour force available to Western firms doubled with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of reform across East Asia. Technology and globalisation have famously helped make work placeless, highly networked, 24-7.
The result of this number of wide-ranging and inseparable forces has ushered in this new state of affairs. It has dramatically redefined the current everyday experience of a vast number of mostly young and un-, under-, or precariously employed people who, themselves, are likely also in some form of debt and growing more and more frustrated with the shrinking pool of opportunities and limited alternatives to the pool of temp, freelance, intern or part-time work.
Although the statistics are frightening and the anecdotes are all well-known, it hasn't been until fairly recently that the real opportunities for the young and precariously employed to challenge the status quo have been properly registered. However, with the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring (comprised mostly of the young and unemployed), much of this has begun to change, and Perlin optimistically notes the opportunities for the "precariat" to begin to collectively give voice to their frustration and dissent.
Visit the New Left Project to read Perlin's article in full and our books page for his Intern Nation which is now out in paperback. He also participated in a panel on precarious at last weekend'ss Left Forum conference. Please click here for an audio link to the panel discussion.