The “Precariat” and the Epidemic of Status Frustration
Updated: Apr 7, 2019
My peers and I bought into the grand illusion that if you succeeded in struggling your way through school, enduring all the dictatorial nonsense and the endless drilling of information, then battled your way through four years or more of college, that you would come out on the other side with job offers aplenty and once and for all begin your glorious ascension into adulthood.
We envisioned starting our first big career, buying our first apartment or house, marrying, having children and all the things we grew up expecting would naturally fall into place when the time arrived. Perhaps this dream was plausible before, yet by the time we arrived it was too late; the picnic was over, the food had been devoured, the weather had changed and night had fallen.
We are called “Generation F**ked”, “The Lost Generation” and “Generation Jobless” for there is widespread recognition that the lives of those emerging into the labour market post-crisis have been permanently and unequivocally damaged.
The phenomenon, that currently retains the greatest impact upon this generation is not, however, a passing trend or phase, or a difficult period that we can overcome. It is an ongoing development; a devolution with no signs of slowing down, no indications of receding and which our current economic regime has presented absolutely no solution for.
A combination of exploitative internships, low wages and unrepresented work in the realm of employment paints a harsh picture for youths moving forward and the so-called “youth guarantees” and “employment schemes” offered by governments across the Western world have been, for the most part, completely ineffective in tackling what has become nothing less than a global crisis.
The lack of security these workers face has caused them to come into a class of their own; a class Professor Guy Standing calls “The Precariat.” This “new dangerous class” leads a precarious lifestyle in the sense that they move from job to job, have insecure, zero-hour contracts with no benefits, retain no union representation and find it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to lobby for their rights. They live on the periphery of society, with no concrete professional identity and no real status to claim, while the harrowing instability they face becomes normalized by society and considered a “rite of passage” into the “real” labour force.
Neoliberalism, the system that has perpetrated the deregulation of capital, markets and labour has made it extremely difficult for the average, well-educated person to obtain what was once considered a normal, full-time contract. In the global, neoliberal regime, precarious workers lack, as Mr Standing points out, seven different kinds of security including 1. Labour market security 2. Employment security 3. Job security 4. Work security 5. Skill production security 6. Income security 7. Representation security.
Keeping people in this mode of flexible insecurity, so-called “flexicurity”, serves another function besides the obvious benefits for companies. It keeps people in a state of hyper-insecurity, in such a state of fear, self-doubt and stress that they do not have the time or the ware withal to concern themselves too much with a political system they feel is distant and unrelated to their own problems.
This state of flexicurity along with the commodification, and subsequent devaluation, of higher degrees for graduates has led to a dramatic increase in what is known as “status frustration”. Status frustration is an altogether new experience that youths are confronted with, as it is a case of being born into, for example, a middle-class family, achieving a well-rounded, even enviable education, but feeling lower class because the only jobs available to them are of a lower class variety.
Professor Standing is not optimistic about the social mobility of today’s youth; ‘for the majority’ he asserts, ‘the future promises a stream of temporary jobs with no prospect of developing an occupational career.’(p.134) Unfortunately for the youth of Europe and elsewhere, their early adult life is spent scrambling for insecure, low paying jobs at the lower socio-economic class than the one in which they were born. This means that their occupational progress is stymied and delayed and thus their overall success in life will ultimately be hindered.
A controversial feature (and contributor) of status frustration in the contemporary working-world of youths is the rise of the unpaid internships. Many students, upon graduation, enter into these internship schemes that are intended to help with the college-to-labour transition; an idea which has become highly contested in recent years since most students remain unemployed long after the internship expires.
For young people, who are said to be disadvantaged by their lack of “real-world” experience, internships are designed to prepare them for the responsibility of their chosen profession and provide them with valuable experience that will make their curriculum vitae more impressive to potential employers. They are supposed to be of benefit to both the employer and the intern but there is now a general suspicion that these schemes are designed solely for the benefit of the employers and that interns are simply being used as free labour for an already bloated, tax-evading and socially over-compensated corporate sector.
The rise in the casual nature of work benefits employers greatly, as they do not have to pay for healthcare or any other benefits, can hire and fire at will, are exempted from various taxes and are under no contractual obligation to make any commitments to their employee. In the case of interns, they can even get their work done free of any and all labour costs.
Ross Perlin, discussing the evils of internships, states, ‘interns perform as affective labour what others would call menial. They work, for their own good name, so that someone, someday, will vouch for their fitness to do “real” work. ‘Just as the federal government has increasingly shifted the financial burden of a college education onto students and their families, companies have effected a similar stratagem by transitioning from training and entry-level jobs to internships.’.
It is now widely believed that internships not only function to exclude the youth from the real economy, but can also leave a scarring effect in terms of the perception of work, feeling useless and redundant and discriminated against in workplace due to comparatively lower wages. In this sense, internships work against the youth as they flit from one internship to the next and continue struggling to find long-term employment. The consequence of all this for young people has been the erosion of the labour market, ever-decreasing standards of employment and a precarious existence that leads to psychological strain, depression and a general, overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Globalization, which causes the workers of the world to compete with each other in a race to the bottom, along with automation and the increasing worthlessness of university degrees all contribute to a brutal and morally-degrading environment for the precarious worker which, we have every reason to believe, will only deteriorate further as the years unfold. Government, corporate and the NGO sector are equally culpable in exploiting youth labour in an unprecedented manner across the world and it is high time that this exploitation is recognized for what it really is. A seething and righteous rage currently smoulders under the surface of the precarious youth and it is a rage that will inevitably evoke a backlash, the consequences of which may be irreversible and far-reaching.
Introducing a standard minimum wage for all workers would make entrance into the labour market for youth much more equitable and fair and provide some semblance of stability for the global Precariat, who, I believe, are on the precipice of revolt worldwide.
 Professor Guy Standing, (2014), The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.
 Ross Perlin, (2011), Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.