Review: The uncertain new world of labour

While it is hard to measure the fear in people’s hearts, there is little evidence of widespread or increasing unhappiness among workers

Review: The uncertain new world of labour

By Edward Hadas

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - In 1997, Pierre Bourdieu argued that the “precariousness” of modern work was a big problem. The French intellectual claimed that the decline of secure jobs and clear career paths led to “the destruction of existence… to the degradation of every relationship with the world, time, and space”. Everyone, he said, was affected, because no one could escape the fear of being rendered precarious.

Cultural critics have been kicking this big bad idea around since then. It is easy to find articles with titles like “Precarity and Social Disintegration: A Relational Concept”, not to mention “Modern architecture, spatial precarity and the female body in the domestic spaces in Iran”.

Stripped of some rhetorical excess, a serious accusation is being made. Labour markets have gone badly wrong, leaving too many people either currently unable to earn a decent living or afraid of being thrown into that scrap heap of economic failure.

The accusation is serious, but is it justified? Could the existence of a precariat be a fervid fantasy of left-wing malcontents? Arne Kalleberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has studied the phenomenon for years. His latest book, Precarious Lives: Job Insecurity and Well-Being in Rich Democracies, combines a magisterial collection of the statistical evidence with a summary of the many theories which purport to explain what is going on.

His conclusions are less definitive than Bourdieu, who died in 2002, might have liked. While it is hard to measure the fear in people’s hearts, there is little evidence of widespread or increasing unhappiness among workers. Between 2004 and 2010, the average level of “perceived subjective well-being” actually increased in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Kalleberg focuses on those three countries, plus Denmark, the United States and Japan. Each nation has its own history, approach and peculiarities, but he finds a nearly universal pattern: Less clear job paths and less protective labour laws. However, some caution is needed. Almost all of the changes have been more marginal than dramatic, and many are reasonable responses to big social shifts, most notably the decline of traditional “male breadwinner, female homemaker” households.

While precariousness does not shine brightly in the numbers, it is not an empty concept. Work life is indeed very difficult for at least two groups of workers in most developed economies. The first is people living at the margins: migrants, former prisoners, the poorly educated and socially detached. They often get stuck with below-subsistence wages and inadequate help from welfare states.

It is not clear whether the plight of these social losers has worsened in all developed countries. In the United States, though, the decline is clear. The interaction of weak welfare provisions, high private payments for healthcare and low job protection has created a large precariat – people who rightly feel close to the edge of economic disaster.

The other struggling group is closer to the top end of the social spectrum. The expansion of university education has not been matched by an expansion of attractive entry-level professional positions. Kalleberg theorises that the slow start to solid careers helps explain the increasing age at which young adults leave their parents’ homes and start their own families.

That might be attaching too much importance to economic factors. There are many reasons for the changes in family formation and structure, presumably starting with the changing social role and expectations of women. More generally, precarious labour may be as much the effect as the cause of less stable social relations.

As far as the economy is concerned, though, Precarious Lives leaves the reader with one general conclusion: A well-designed and well-funded welfare state can help limit precarity. The Danish government’s “flexicurity” model, which combines flexibility for employers with income security and help finding new jobs for employees, puts it at the bottom of almost every index of insecurity. The United States is mostly close to the top.

Despite the clear virtues of welfare states, Denmark has few imitators. On the contrary, the trend in developed economies is towards declining protection of workers. With that background, Kalleberg is pessimistic about the future of labour practices. He calls for a renewed effort by governments and employers, and a renewed spirit of solidarity among workers.

Bourdieu would have scoffed at such hopes. He had no doubts about what was going on. Strong welfare systems get in the way of what he called “flexploitation”: The use of flexible labour contracts to “constrain workers to… accept exploitation”. So all-powerful capitalists naturally undermine them.

That sounds like an extreme diagnosis. Still, it would be nice if leaders of business and society worked to prove him clearly wrong.

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