PROJECT: Youth Precarity

PROJECT: Youth Precarity

Project: Youth Precarity
  • About the project

    “Youth Precarity” is a research project focusing on precarious work and young people asking: What exactly do we mean by the term “precarity”? What is the current situation for young people aged 18-34 in the Greek labour market? How do experiences of labour precarity affect young people’s identity, views, and aspirations? Is precarity invincible?

    The research program includes, among others, quantitative research, a report analysis of available data from the Labour Force Survey, policy proposals, a series of vidcasts called “On Precarity”, networking and awareness-raising initiatives as well as actions to highlight collective resistance against precarious work in Greece and abroad.

    The research project will be carried out in collaboration with the Laboratory of Social Theory and Empirical Research of the Department of Sociology of the University of Athens.

  • Indentity

    This research project started in January 2024. Contact info:

  • Contributors
Guy Standing: “To be in the precariat is like running on sinking sand”

Guy Standing: “To be in the precariat is like running on sinking sand”

What is the precariat? What are labour relations like in the post-pandemic setting? Why are we losing control of time and are in a state of constant stress and unsustainable debt? What could we call “politics of paradise” today, and how can the “political monster” of the far right be defeated? What is basic income and what are the main conclusions from the pilot projects for its implementation? What is the role of trade unions in the emancipation of the precariat? And, finally, how did an economist’s speeches about the precariat end up featuring on Massive Attack’s new album Eutopia?

The answers to these questions can be found in Guy Standing’s interview with Eteron – Institute for Research and Social Change, launching the Institute’s new research project, “Youth Precarity”. The interview was conducted by the project’s coordinator, Costas Gousis, and Angeliki K. Karageorgou, and it constitutes the first episode of Eteron’s new program “On Precarity”, a vidcast series of discussions with authors who have written books focusing on precarious work.

Guy Standing is an economist, professor and research partner at SOAS University of London, as well as a founding member and honorary co-chair of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). He has also worked for many decades and served as Director of the Socio-Economic Security Programme of the International Labour Organisation. He is the author of “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class” which has been translated into 25 languages. Last year, it was also published in Greek by Topos publications, as part of mέta – Centre for Post Capitalist Civilisation’s publishing series.

Below you can find the transcript of the interview.

Angeliki Karageorgou: Thank you for accepting our invitation. So, let’s start with the first question. You have said many times that the precariat is not just insecure jobs. Would you like to describe to us the fundamental characteristics of the precariat?

Guy Standing: Yes, I mean, the precariat has emerged as a new class in the 21st century. And essentially what we’ve seen is that the neoliberal economic revolution of the 1980s and 1990s has produced a new model of capitalism. I call it rentier capitalism, in which more and more of the income flows to the owners of property; physical property, financial property, and intellectual property. And less and less goes to those who are performing labour and work. And in that context, what we’ve seen is that financial capital has become the dominant force in the global economy.

And in the process, a new globalised class structure has emerged. That class structure has a plutocracy at the top, an elite serving the interests of the plutocracy and a salariat of people in employment security with pensions and so on. The old proletariat, the old working class of the 20th century is dying and shrinking. And still our politics on the centre-left and on the Left have focused on the old proletariat. But really the new class is the precariat. And underneath the precariat, there’s the lumpen or underclass, people dying in the streets with opioids and so on. The precariat is wanted by global capital and it can be defined in three dimensions.

The first dimension is what I call distinctive relations of production. That means that people in the precariat have unstable, insecure labour. They have no occupational narrative to give to their life, no sense of becoming something. They’re living bits-and-pieces lives. They have to do a lot of work that isn’t counted, recognised and remunerated. They have to do a lot of work for the labour [market], work for the state, work for reproduction. And they have to experience something that has never happened before and that is very important for the young people. Because this is the first time in history when a mass class has had to have a level of education greater than the level required for the jobs they can expect to obtain. It’s a very distinctive situation and ironically many of the jobs require higher levels of education credentials to obtain them but actually don’t need them in the actual performance of their labour. And this creates a great sense of frustration, alienation and so on.

The second dimension is that the precariat has to rely on low volatile money wages. It doesn’t get non-wage benefits, it doesn’t have access to rights-based state benefits and it’s losing the commons. I’ve written about the commons in a separate book; the commons which belong to all of us and give a sense of solidarity and security to our societies. But they’ve been privatised, commodified, and depleted by austerity. The ironical thing is that because we’re living in an age of rentier capitalism dominated by finance, the precariat is exploited by debt. And financial capital wants people to be in debt. That’s how they make their money. So the precariat is living on the edge of unsustainable debt all the time. One accident, one illness, one mistake and they can be out in the streets. And this creates incredible stress, insecurity, mental illnesses, and deaths of despair.

The third dimension is the most important of all, that the precariat has distinct relations to the state. By that I mean that it’s losing rights of citizenship. It’s losing civil rights, it’s losing social rights, it’s losing cultural rights, it’s losing economic rights and it’s losing political rights because politically there are no parties that systematically represent the precariat’s interests and aspirations. And this leads to the most important defining feature of the precariat. They feel like supplicants. They feel they have to ask for favours all the time. They have to rely on discretionary judgments by landlords, by employers, by parents, by spouses, by their children in order to survive. And this is very undignifying and creates more stress, more feelings of inadequacy and a lot of anger.

So these are the features that define the precariat and things flow from there. But the fact is that now around the world, an increasing proportion of our populations, including in Greece, Britain, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere, millions of people feel that they belong to the precariat. This is a global phenomenon and every day I receive emails from somewhere in the world, from somebody saying, “I am in the precariat and your book is about me”. And I was very impressed when I spoke in Athens after the Greek edition of the book – it’s now gone into five editions – and I believe that it’s really relevant for the politics of the future in Greece.

Costas Gousis: Αfter the publication of your book in 2011 and during the last decade, a lot of debates took place about the precariat and precarity as an analytical and political question. Is there any feedback on your book or any specific criticism that you consider particularly constructive in terms of pushing your discussion of the precariat further?

Guy Standing: Yes. On page 1 of the book, as published in 2011, I said that unless the politicians and the analysts came to understand and analyse the precariat, we would see the emergence of a political monster. Those were the words I used in English, “a political monster”. And in early 2016, I received an email, very strange, asking me to go and address the Bilderberg Group. Now the Bilderberg Group is the elite right-wing movement set up after the Second World War, having right-wing prime ministers, plutocrats, head of the CIA, head of MI6, head of NATO, and people like that. So I thought it was a joke from some friend of mine on the Left. Then they called me up and said, “Νo, we would really like you to come and address the Bilderberg Group”. So in early 2016, I suddenly was addressing 100 people including several Prime Ministers, several Ministers of Finance, the head of NATO, the head of CIA, and so on. And right in front of me was Henry Kissinger.

Now, I thought that all of these people would have no interest in my analysis on the precariat. But I said, “Look, do not be surprised if Donald Trump is elected President later this year in November, 2016; do not be surprised if in Britain they vote for Brexit because you’re not having a policy agenda that responds to the insecurities of the precariat. And part of the precariat will vote for populist neo-fascist agendas”. And sure enough, of course, Donald Trump won in November 2016. And I received numerous emails and messages from people who said, “your political monster has arrived”.

Now, since then, I have been asked to speak many times on the links between the growth of the precariat and the shift of politics to a dangerous new far-right agenda. We see it in the latest case in the Netherlands, with the PVV and Wilders winning against the expectations of the centre-left. We see it in Sweden, in Scandinavia, in France, in Italy with Meloni and the Brothers of Italy. And, of course, we see it in Greece. And the reason is that the precariat is split into three groups.

The first group consists of those who are not very educated, they haven’t been to university and they come from communities, like manufacturing, mining and construction communities, where the old working class, where the Papandreou constituents, for example, used to come from. And that group wants yesterday back. They have lost the past in their minds. And this group will listen to the neo-fascists and the populists who promised to bring back yesterday, promised sovereignty, national identity and all of these things and play on the fear of people. This group has been supporting the Donald Trumps and the various other groups that we all know about.

The second group in the precariat are what I call the nostalgics. These are people who are like the migrants, the refugees, the minorities, the people with disabilities. And they lack a present and a home. And being nostalgic when they don’t have a home, they are disenfranchised. They’re losing a sense of home and reality today. This group won’t support the neo-fascists, but they don’t support anything because they don’t see a future.

The third group in the precariat are mainly the young who went to university and to college and were promised by their teachers and their parents that if they did that, they would have a future and a career and they would develop themselves. And most of them come out of the university feeling they bought a lottery ticket. A lottery ticket meant that only a few win and the rest are living with debt, disillusion and disappointment. This group won’t vote for neo-fascists, but they’ve been staying at home because they don’t see the “politics of paradise”, as I’ve called it in the book. And this group is the group that typically invites me to go and speak to them in different countries. I’ve been giving talks in 42 countries so far. Because it’s this group that is now looking for a new progressive politics.

And parties like Syriza, Podemos and Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy, failed to do that; they have failed to provide a vision of a good society for the future. And until the Left articulates a new progressive vision, we are in a very dangerous point where the atavists, the first group, combined with other right-wing elements will drag our politics to the far right. We are at a very, very dangerous point today, and it’s vital that a new progressive politics develops.

Angeliki Karageorgou: Let’s proceed with another close topic. What was the impact of the COVID pandemic? I mean, we have seen a very strong and sharp transition to online and distance working. What kind of labour market is shaping up for the post-pandemic precariat?

Guy Standing: Well, thanks for that question. You probably don’t know but i’ ve just published a new book that came out two months ago. It’s only in English at the moment and it’s called “The Politics of Time: Gaining Control in the Age of Uncertainty”. I hope it will be translated into Greek one day. It’s partly due to COVID that I came to write this book. Because what COVID has done is make a lot of people realise that we are living with chronic uncertainty today. Now, uncertainty is a very particular form of insecurity. The old forms of insecurity that the welfare state was developed to deal with like unemployment, illness, accident, pregnancy, old age, you could work out the probability of that happening and build a social insurance system to provide security.

With uncertainty, you never know when you’re going to be hit by a shock, by a hazard. You don’t know if you are going to be hit and you don’t know how hard you’re going to be hit and whether you can cope with the problems and recover from the problems. And I think that COVID reinforced the feeling among millions of people that all of us are vulnerable. You, me, all of those listening are vulnerable to being hit by a shock that could cause us to have terrible circumstances. And this has reinforced my argument for moving towards a basic income.

During COVID, I received another very strange request from a musical group called Massive Attack. You may have heard of Massive Attack. And Massive Attack asked me to make a musical video with my argument saying that we need to recognise the precariat and to recognise we need to strengthen our sense of resilience, our sense of being able to handle shocks and be able to feel confident that we will be able to recover from those shocks. And the musical video, you can find it on YouTube, it’s been watched by over a million people, which is strange for an economist to experience this, in many languages, and I get a lot of calls as a result.

And I think that the COVID combined with the austerity era, are making a lot more people feel we’ve got to move in the direction of giving everybody a basic security, everybody a basic income in which they can build their lives and feel a sense of control. And if you’re in the precariat, that is the most important thing of all. That is the most important thing. And millions of people now are coming to realise it. And opinion polls in various European countries, even in the United States, shows that a majority now support moving in that direction.

But our politicians, mainly, are dead men walking. They’re dead men walking, unable to grab the initiative and have the courage to come up with the transformation agenda. And the political problems on the Left will only continue unless they realise that they have to have a new agenda which promises people a sense of security, a sense of freedom and a sense of social solidarity suitable for the 21st century. And I’m sorry to say that the mainstream parties on the centre-left and the Left have failed. And again and again they get defeated and they throw up their hands and they don’t understand why they’re defeated.

But until they change their agenda and their vision, that defeat will continue. You remember a famous saying back in 2015 by a certain politician who became your Prime Minister who said “defeat is the battle that is not waged”. You remember him saying that? Well, he didn’t fight the battle. He surrendered to the IMF. He surrendered to the Troika, or whatever you want to call it, he surrendered. He didn’t fight the battle. And until we have brave politicians with a sense of vision who understand the precariat, that defeat will continue.

Costas Gousis: Well I agree with you that, especially during the pandemic, we realised that we’re all vulnerable. But as another saying goes, we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. So I would like to ask you how you consider the unequal effects of precarity based on race, gender, age? And which is the most productive way to overcome these divisions between groups within the precarity in order to have the broader alliance of the exploited people?

Guy Standing: Yes, that’s a very good question and I’ve tried to address it in my new books. I think any transformation, any progressive movement is always led by the interests and aspirations of the emerging new mass class. That class today is the precariat. It counts for 40% or whatever the percentage of the adult population, but something like that. And we realise we must have an agenda that reaches beyond the precariat uniting the educated part of our populations, including people who are in the salariat, in secure employment, including some people who are progressive in their thinking, even further up in the economic stratosphere, if you like. I believe that basic security is an essential component of that appeal across classes.

I also believe that rebuilding the commons, rebuilding what is common to all of us, nature, the social commons, the cultural commons, the civil commons, that is universal justice. These are what should be the elements of a new progressive agenda. And that means reversing privatisation. It means reversing the commodification of life. It means decommodifying our education system. Our education system has been captured by the interests of a neoliberal ideology. It’s for producing human capital. That’s the term that is used. It’s for making people more competitive, more capable of making more money than the other people. It’s a perversion of what the ancient Greeks regarded as the search for “paideia”, the sense of “arete”, the sense of moral education. This is the sort of agenda that we need to build. And I believe that it will appeal across classes, but will also help unite the various parts of the precariat.

If we use a Marxian term, at the moment, the precariat is still a class in the making because it’s internally divided. It knows what it’s against, but it hasn’t got a unified agenda. But I believe it’s becoming a class for itself. And it will become a class for itself when the agenda reaches out towards all elements.

The people I call nostalgics, they want basic security. They want a sense of a home. The agenda should appeal to them. The people in the atavistic part are responding because they are fearful. They fear for themselves, for their children, and they listen to voices promising some sort of security, but this is not real security because the appeal is to make the other people the enemy: the migrants, the women, the disabled, whatever a group it might be, they’re the enemy. And the people like Trump, they use, as we call it in English, the dog whistle, which is always playing on a misogynist, racist, nativist language to appeal to the base instincts of people. And we need an agenda that appeals to the good instincts of people. And that, I think, is emerging slowly and painfully. But that’s what we need.

Angeliki Karageorgou: According to your book, basic income and the revival of the commons are two possible solutions to change the current situation for the precariat. Based on your experience in the pilot projects, how do you see the precariat benefiting from such politics?

Guy Standing: Well, you’re listening to a man who’s had a very privileged experience of being able to test and see the results from a policy that I’ve advocated for several decades. I’ve been fortunate to be able to design and participate in a number of basic income pilots. And the pilots have been in Africa, they’ve been in India, they’ve been in Brazil, they’ve been in Finland, they’ve been in Canada, the United States, England and at the moment there are over 100 basic income pilots going on.

And at the moment, I can tell you this. In every single pilot and experiment in which I participated, and I’ve written it up in my book on basic income, the results are essentially the same. And the results include this. Most importantly of all, having a basic income improves people’s mental health. It reduces stress. And improving mental health, it also improves people’s physical health. And that helps with reducing the demands on public health services and actually helps create a more healthy society. It also results in improved schooling. Where we’ve seen basic income going to families, – individuals, but individuals within families – the children go to school more conscientiously and achieve better results and stay in school longer and do better.

We’ve also seen that basic income paid to each individual without condition, each individual man and individual woman, each child paid to the mother or the surrogate mother, results in improvement in the status of women. It improves their sense of being in control of their lives and we have some dramatic results in that respect.

And then listen to what I’m about to say, please. Contrary to the critics, people who have a basic income work more, not less. And they’re more productive when they work. And they’re more tolerant of other people. They’re more altruistic towards other people. In short, they become better citizens. For me, the evidence is overwhelming. The results are independent of the involvement of someone like me. They’ve been done by independent groups, people without any views at the beginning.

But again and again, the results come through. People who have basic security become better people. And that’s what we should want for everybody, as well as for ourselves.

Costas Gousis: Thank you very much. We have reached our final question. As you have aptly described it, being part of the precariat feels like running on sinking sand. You go nowhere and you have to run harder and harder. But despite all these difficulties, on the bright side, we’ve seen the emancipatory potential of the precariat as illustrated, for example, by young workers fighting to create new unions against all the union-busting tactics and having victories as they did with the Starbucks Union in the US. So my question is, what conditions might facilitate this emancipatory potential of the precariat and what is the role of a new labour unionism?

Guy Standing: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Clearly you’ve listened to some speech I’ve given because I think the idea that if you’re in the precariat, you’re running on sinking sand is a very nice metaphor of how many people feel. But I want to emphasise one point, Costas, which is this, that the precariat are not just victims. They are not just failures. Increasingly, people in the precariat are proud. They don’t feel ashamed. They don’t feel that they are failures. They feel that this is a condition of an emerging class and there is dignity. And this gives them a sense of independence. They don’t suffer from a false consciousness, that jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, labour is somehow the route to Nirvana. They feel they want to do work, they want to do commoning, as I call it. They want to care for their loved ones, for their community. They want to be creative. They want to develop themselves. And they want to slow down.

That’s why my new book is called “The Politics of Time”. They want to have a sense of control of their time, which is the most vital asset we have besides our health. Our time is all we have. And they want to feel in control of their time and be able to use their time in ways that are outside the dictates of capital or the dictates of the state.

We need the state, but it must be reformed. It must be re-emancipated from the control by finance and interests that are alien for ordinary people. And I think this sense of emancipation is vital for a new progressive politics. And when you talk about the unions, the unions have got to reform themselves. They have to transform their vocabulary. I was speaking to the International Confederation of Building Workers in Helsinki earlier this week. And I said, “You are still using the vocabulary of the 1960s. You have to use the vocabulary that appeals to the precariat and has a vision of equality and security”, in which we can flourish by developing our capacities and having a control of our time.

And I was very heartened by the fact that a lot of the younger people in those trade unions – and their members come from 70 countries – they came up to me afterwards and have been writing to me and saying, “Yes, we must go in this direction”. I believe we need unions. We need collective bodies because we’re all vulnerable. We need collective bodies that represent our interests, our ecological interests. Most fundamentally, we want to be ecological. We want to care for our environment. We want to feel part of our environment.

That is why the agenda of eco-growth or de-growth is so attractive for the precariat. Why do we want to chase GDP growth all the time? Why do we want to produce more guns which will raise GDP growth? Whereas if I care for my mother and go and get paid, GDP growth goes down. It’s ridiculous, ridiculous. So we have to reorient the way we want to live and the way we measure progress. GDP goes up if finance becomes more powerful and gets more wealth through the financial markets. But has that improved the conditions of our living? No, of course not. So we have to think differently. I don’t want to chase GDP growth. We have to have an image. Growth is a tumour inside us. Cancers have growth. Do we want growth all the time? No, not all the time.

So this is a new agenda, a new way of looking at it. And the people in the precariat are in a position where they don’t suffer the false consciousness of thinking that the model of capitalism in which we are living is the best possible world. It isn’t. And that, I think, is the final point on which I would like to end our discussion, because we have to be able to emancipate our imaginations, emancipate our vision, our vocabulary, and our courage. And that, I think, is happening among people in the precariat, particularly, I find, women, because they are less suffering from this false consciousness that jobs, jobs, jobs is the road to heaven.

So we have to follow what these people are saying to us. And I’m fortunate in that I’m able to listen to a lot of them. So I thank you very much for these good questions.

Angeliki Karageorgou: Thank you very much for your answers

Cookie policy