Edward Hadas: 'New world of work leaves 'precariat' living on edge'
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.
A serious accusation is being made. Labour markets have gone badly wrong, leaving too many either unable to earn a decent living or afraid of being thrown on the 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 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 UK.
Kalleberg focuses on those three countries, plus Denmark, the United States and Japan. He finds a nearly universal pattern: less clear job paths and less protective labour laws. However, caution is needed. Almost all of the changes have been more marginal than dramatic, and many are reasonable responses to social shifts, notably the decline of traditional "male breadwinner, female homemaker" household.
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 people has worsened in all developed countries. In the US, 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 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.
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 US 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. He calls for a renewed effort by governments and employers, and 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". That sounds like an extreme diagnosis. Still, it would be nice if leaders of business and society worked to prove him clearly wrong. (© Reuters Breakingviews)