What new meanings does the concept of precarity adopt when society is suddenly plunged into a deep, prolonged, even existential crisis? While it has been used for decades, the publication of Guy Standing’s The Precariat in 2011 was critical to popularizing this concept. Today, precarity seems to be everywhere. The erosion of the 9-to-5 working day, the emerging gig economy, zero-hours contracts, rising self-employment and agency work are all signs that contingent work is the new normal. In Australia, where we write from, at least half of the workforce can now be regarded as contingent. This figure is much higher in many other places around the world.
But for many, there is nothing ‘new’ about this normal. Feminists in particular have pointed out that ‘standard’ employment relationships were always an exception enjoyed primarily by white men in wealthy economies. Arguments that hinge on the novelty of precarious work have unsurprisingly drawn criticism for their failure to acknowledge the diversity of economic lives across time and space.
In contrast to those who say that this concept has been stretched too far, our recent special issue in Critical Sociology emphasizes the value of a broad, multidimensional understanding of precarity. Following Nancy Ettlinger, we see precarity as a ‘condition of vulnerability relative to contingency and the inability to predict’. Although our work was compiled prior to the coronavirus pandemic, this broad orientation is useful in a context where lives and livelihoods are exposed to so many manifestations of risk. It invites us to think about what makes for vulnerability and resilience, the different types of risks we are exposed to, and how these can be negotiated individually and collectively.
What emerges through this kind of analysis is that exposure to risk and its social and economic impacts are widespread, even in wealthy economies and populations. Many of us find ourselves living in a ‘speculative life-world’ in which we are ‘condemned to decision making under uncertain levels of uncertainty, and to thus precarity and insecurity’. But just as we find exposure to risk in unlikely places, we also observe unexpected instances of resilience and collectivization of risk.
For us, a keynote example which preceded the coronavirus pandemic were the bushfires which ravaged Australia from September 2019 to January 2020. The destruction of forests released hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon from the ground and increased emissions. In Australia, the coronavirus pandemic emerged on the back of the devastating experience of these bushfires, deepening a sense of widespread anxiety about the future.
Australia’s bushfires fires rendered material the existential threat of climate change in unprecedented ways. A textbook example of Ettlinger’s ‘condition of vulnerability relative to contingency and the inability to predict’, the fires revealed the limits of humanity’s control over nature, our inability to predict it, and the extent of our vulnerability to it.
The bushfires had a profound impact on the continent’s environment and population. Fires killed dozens of people, over one billion animals, and razed over 12.6 million hectares of forest. Around 3500 homes and countless livelihoods were destroyed while millions of people choked on smoke. The bushfires thrust the precarity of life to the forefront and generated a new national mood in which summer. Once a time to look forward to, it became a time to dread. This broader sense of fear intersected with the fields of work and education to generate new types of precarity. The fear of allowing children to play outdoors with hazardous air quality increased pressure on parents and educators. Outdoor-based workers in construction or horticulture were expose to the risk of respiratory illness from smoke haze. This reinforces the findings of one paper in our collection regarding the workplace as a site of ecological struggle.
Having endured the anxieties of the worst bushfire season on record, Australia was immediately drawn into the coronavirus pandemic. The full impact of this crisis is still being understood. But, like in many other countries, it has been met with an economic shutdown which has induced potentially the worst social and economic conditions since the Great Depression. Unemployment is predicted to triple to 15 percent, with some predicting a figure as high as 20 percent.
The depth of the crisis has brought about policy shifts which were unthinkable only weeks ago: the politically-conservative Australian Government has doubled the rate of payment for unemployment insurance, fully subsidised childcare for most households who need it, proposed a moratorium on evictions due to financial distress, and issued income support for businesses to continue paying their workers.
The policy response primarily defends capital from precarity by supporting on-going accumulation, while reinforcing established divisions within labor. The government has promised that the above measures are temporary features. A return to the old ‘normal’ is to be expected, including Australia’s punitive and workfarist model of unemployment insurance. There is no income support for more than a million migrant workers and short-term casual workers. Many migrant workers as well as international students have been denied access to healthcare. Refugees are confined to hazardous detention camps, as they are around the world.
For low-paid workers in Australia, the government’s asset-based approach to welfare is an empty gesture. Australia has a compulsory private pension system—known as superannuation – through which roughly ten per cent of workers’ wages is surrendered to financial institutions and held until retirement. This system enables those in secure, high-paid jobs to amass large savings with generous tax concessions, while denying low-paid workers cash when they need it. During the pandemic response, the Australian Government has encouraged workers to access their retirement savings. But those who are most in need of emergency funds, such as workers in tourism, hospitality and retail, tend to have some of the lowest savings balances. Furthermore, given the recent collapse in financial markets, superannuation accounts have been decimated. Workers who are required to draw on those funds will be forced to realize their losses rather than wait for a resurgence in the market.
The crisis is also generating precarity among seemingly stable sections of the population—so-called ‘Middle Australia’. Australia’s high levels of private home ownership are accompanied by unprecedented levels of household debt. Australia’s central bank has repeatedly warned of the risk these debt levels pose, not only to particular households, but to financial stability in the economy. Mass unemployment, and the prevalence of contingent work throughout the economy, has pushed millions of households to the brink of default on mortgages, rent and other debts.
While the financial dimensions of the crisis reflect familiar conflicts of interest between the wealthy and the poor, these interests manifest differently in an economy built on debt and financial assets. Several papers in our special issue consider the role of finance in a world of constantly shifting risks, exploring the ways in which finance can be both a tool for managing risk and a vehicle for its accentuation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those most able to manage the economic impacts will be those with access to household wealth, a conclusion that is brought into sharp relief by a paper in our special issue on the experiences of retrenched workers. At the same time, the social crisis of the pandemic, following the socio-ecological crisis of the bushfires, highlights different aspects of precarity. New iterations of vulnerability emerge and are filtered through familiar distinctions of class, gender and race.
We hope that the papers we have collated will contribute in a modest way to the development of a broader conception of precarity, and a deeper understanding of the current crisis. In our special issue, researchers deploy precarity into new conceptual and empirical territories. They also begin to think about different ways to build resilience and resistance. One paper addresses antipodean debates about the Universal Basic Income. These debates can be viewed in a new light given the mass displacement of wage labor with the coronavirus, and the dramatic renovation of welfare policy it has precipitated. A completely different perspective on building resilience in the face of precarity is offered by an ethnographic study of migrant women’s communities in Sydney. This can give us inspiration for thinking about creative ways to challenge the increasingly uncertain futures we all face.
How we navigate this moment of intense uncertainty and collective anxiety will shape the future. Thinking about the many ways that our precarity manifests will be crucial to avoid re-inscribing the inequalities and injustices of the pre-coronavirus world.
Claire Parfitt is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
Tom Barnes is an economic sociologist and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University (ACU), in Sydney.
This article is adapted from Claire Parfitt and Tom Barnes, “Rethinking Economic Security in a Precarious World,” Critical Sociology special issue published online March 5, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920519850266
Image: “Uber Eats” by Hernán Piñera, Flickr