Precarity Rising


Have work­ers expe­ri­enced a rise in job inse­cu­rity – defined as shorter hours, tem­po­rary con­tracts, and unsta­ble work­ing con­di­tions – over the past four decades? This is no idle ques­tion. Debates around job secu­rity form one part of a larger dis­cus­sion about the strate­gic ori­en­ta­tion of the labor move­ment. The­o­rists such as Anto­nio Negri and Guy Stand­ing iden­tify a sharp rise in inse­cu­rity, or what is also called pre­car­ity (a term bor­rowed from the French), as a key fea­ture of work and life in the present. On this basis, they argue that a shift in the form and con­tent of class strug­gle must take place, or, indeed, is already tak­ing place. One doesn’t have to agree with their speci­fic pro­pos­als to see that their argu­ment car­ries a cer­tain force: given far-reach­ing changes in the com­po­si­tion of the work­ing class, some sort of strate­gic shift is required.

Under these con­di­tions, it is no sur­prise that many social­ists, seek­ing to defend a more or less clas­si­cal ori­en­ta­tion, have sought to deny that any such rad­i­cal recom­po­si­tion of the work­ing class has taken place. Despite a main­stream con­sen­sus that employ­ment is becom­ing more pre­car­i­ous, these social­ists defend their views by insist­ing that there is noth­ing fun­da­men­tally new in the con­tem­po­rary con­di­tion of the work­ing class. If any­thing, they claim, we are return­ing to the sort of cap­i­tal­ism that pre­vailed dur­ing the lais­sez-faire era. Thus, in their view, the old strate­gies should apply more, not less.

So for exam­ple, Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin Mag­a­zine argues that instead of see­ing a new period of increas­ing pre­car­ity, it “might be help­ful to con­sider the ways in which the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion resem­bles a return to pre-Fordism.” There is no need, then, to pose new ques­tions about polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion. We are instead free to sort through our tool­box of old strate­gies – the “pre-Fordist” mass work­ers’ par­ties, clas­si­cal trade unions, and the famous munic­i­pal socialisms of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. As Sunkara con­cludes, “some­times new crises have to be con­fronted with old vocab­u­lary.”

If it can be shown, on the con­trary, that the con­di­tions of the work­ing class have rad­i­cally changed, then we sim­ply can­not re-apply the same inherited polit­i­cal strate­gies. Instead of jus­ti­fy­ing a return to old solu­tions, we will have to find new ones.

Recently Char­lie Post, who teaches soci­ol­ogy at CUNY, has help­fully grounded this dis­cus­sion in a set of his­tor­i­cal and empir­i­cal claims, which provide us with a firmer basis for debate. In an inter­view enti­tled “Were All Pre­car­i­ous Now,” Post reit­er­ates the claim that employ­ment itself has not become more pre­car­i­ous. The length of time employed work­ers’ hold on to their job, he says, has not actu­ally got­ten shorter. It’s just that, due to the weak­en­ing of the safety net for employed work­ers, “the con­se­quences of get­ting laid off or fired today are much more sev­ere.”1 It is this, Post argues, that “con­tributes to a grow­ing sense of pre­car­i­ous­ness among all work­ers.”

Post’s con­clu­sion is that, if feel­ings of job inse­cu­rity are ris­ing, this is most directly an effect of the polit­i­cal “defeats of the last thirty years”: the advent of neolib­er­al­ism and the dis­man­tling of the wel­fare state have made it pos­si­ble for employ­ers’ to under­mine work­ers’ ben­e­fits, work­ing con­di­tions, job pro­tec­tions, and union orga­ni­za­tions.

Post is right to argue that job inse­cu­rity has always been a fea­ture of work­ing life in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties. The news media makes it seem as if new forms of inse­cu­rity are about to become the norm in the US, as if the major­ity of work­ers were about to end up employed at arm’s length in the so-called shar­ing econ­omy (dri­ving cars for Uber or work­ing as Taskrab­bits). The fact is that osten­si­bly novel forms of pre­car­ity – such as work­ing for temp agen­cies and sub-con­tract­ing firms or as dubi­ously “inde­pen­dent” con­trac­tors – affect, as yet, only a small minor­ity of work­ers. In this respect Post’s crit­i­cism of Guy Stand­ing is judi­cious: the latter’s notion of a “pre­cariat” exag­ger­ates both the scale of this sec­tor and its divi­sion from the the rest of the work­ing class.

It is also true, as Post empha­sizes, that fol­low­ing the New Deal, the mid­dle decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury saw a strong rise in employ­ment pro­tec­tions and a con­comi­tant reduc­tion in job inse­cu­rity, which increased work­ers’ bar­gain­ing power. The risks asso­ci­ated with class strug­gle were there­fore dimin­ished. Today, mas­sive decli­nes in state-man­dated and employer-pro­vided pro­tec­tions have con­tributed to work­ers’ inse­cu­rity and reduced their com­bat­ive­ness. How­ever, Post goes too far when he asserts that, while work­ers now pay a big­ger price than in the past when they lose hold of their jobs, their hold on those jobs them­selves is no more pre­car­i­ous than before.

Unac­count­ably, Post misses the key to explain­ing ris­ing pre­car­ity, today. It’s not just that the cost of unem­ploy­ment has sky­rock­eted. The rate of unem­ploy­ment has also risen dra­mat­i­cally. Not only has the prob­a­bil­ity that work­ers will lose their jobs there­fore increased. The length of time it takes for the unem­ployed to find new jobs has grown longer, while the like­li­hood that the unem­ployed will have to accept jobs with worse work­ing con­di­tions has become greater. This is espe­cially the case for those for­merly employed in the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, which has shed mil­lions of jobs. It is also true for youth who recently entered the labor force for the first time and, above all, for work­ers of color. The out­come has been the wide­spread col­lapse of work­ers’ bar­gain­ing power.

The ongo­ing decline of employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties helps to explain why so many work­ers are unre­cep­tive to the orga­niz­ing strate­gies of the past. As the labor mar­ket has become ever more for­bid­ding, along so many dimen­sions, work­ers have felt their capac­ity to with­hold their labor melt away, and with it, their capac­ity to resist their employ­ers demands. Today, strug­gles are explod­ing around the indig­nity that, as far as cap­i­tal is con­cerned, people’s work – and even lives – don’t mat­ter.

Mapping Precarity

How does Char­lie Post argue for his claim that pre­car­i­ous employ­ment has not become per se much more preva­lent? Post defines pre­car­ity as employ­ment marked by “short-term, tem­po­rary, part-time work, at lower wages” and with­out “ben­e­fits.” He admits that more peo­ple are work­ing part-time. Part-time work­ers made up a lit­tle less than 15 per­cent of all work­ers in 1968, ris­ing to almost 20 per­cent today.2 If other forms of so-called “non­stan­dard” employ­ment are included, this share rises to 40 per­cent, or almost 60 mil­lion peo­ple.3 How­ever, Post points out, most part-time work­ers are not also less attached to their jobs: work­ers in fast-food and retail are “work­ing some­times ten or fif­teen years for the same employer” but “can’t get full-time.” The impli­ca­tion is that busi­nesses do still want to hold onto their employ­ees; it’s just that refus­ing to employ work­ers full-time allows them to avoid pay­ing for work­ers’ ben­e­fits.

It is true that, on aver­age, the length of time work­ers stay at their jobs has risen slightly, since around 1995. But this fig­ure masks oppo­site trends.4 On the one hand, since 1973, women’s attach­ment to the work­force has become more reg­u­lar, with dual-income-earn­ing house­holds now much more com­mon. Pub­lic-sec­tor employ­ment has also become more secure. On the other hand, men’s employ­ment in the pri­vate sec­tor has become much more irreg­u­lar. Between 1973 and 1995, the aver­age length of men’s pri­vate-sec­tor employ­ment declined by about 25 per­cent, con­trol­ling for changes in age and edu­ca­tion. In 1973, half of men aged 35-64 had been in their pri­vate-sec­tor jobs for at least 10 years, com­pared to a lit­tle more than one third, today.

A sub­stan­tial fall in job secu­rity for men is one part of a larger trans­for­ma­tion of the employ­ment land­scape. Over the past four decades, the US work­force has seen also seen decli­nes in employer-spon­sored ben­e­fits and increases in inequal­i­ties among work­ers, in terms of wages and ben­e­fits.5 Since 1979, the pro­por­tion of all pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers with employer-spon­sored ben­e­fits has fal­len sig­nif­i­cantly: for health­care by 24 per­cent and for pen­sions by 16 per­cent. By many mea­sures, the work­ing class is increas­ingly divided between a shrink­ing sec­tion of rel­a­tively secure employ­ees and a grow­ing sec­tion of pre­car­i­ous work­ers. The dan­ger for those in the for­mer group is that they can fall into the lat­ter, if they fail to keep up with employ­ers’ demands.

How is this ris­ing pre­car­ity to be explained? Post refers to cer­tain long-term trans­for­ma­tions in the US econ­omy, which are key. He argues that pre­car­ity has vastly increased due to the decline of the wel­fare state and the adop­tion of neolib­eral poli­cies. Post rightly con­nects the rise of neolib­er­al­ism to a long-term fall in profit rates, which spurred an employ­ers’ offen­sive against work­ers, and espe­cially against poor work­ers. How­ever, Post fails to note that, con­se­quent on low rates of profit, this same offen­sive unfolded dur­ing an era of intense eco­nomic tur­bu­lence, marked by slow­ing rates of eco­nomic growth and, impor­tantly, ele­vated lev­els of unem­ploy­ment.

A Falling Demand for Labor

Map­ping out the trends asso­ci­ated with ris­ing pre­car­ity is essen­tial, but we should not mis­take such symp­toms for the cause. Whether work­ers have part- or full-time work, whether they stay at their jobs for a long time or face high rates of turnover, work­ers’ job secu­rity is ulti­mately linked to their abil­ity to avoid falling into unem­ploy­ment. In other words, their job secu­rity is tied to their capac­ity to find sim­i­lar jobs, if they lose or leave their cur­rent ones. For this rea­son, a strong labor mar­ket will cre­ate room for work­ers to fight for improved con­di­tions, while a weak mar­ket will do the oppo­site.

Union mem­ber­ship does provide a big boost to work­ers’ power, regard­less of labor mar­ket con­di­tions. How­ever, unions’ power is itself respon­sive to changes in those con­di­tions. In a strong mar­ket, unions win big gains for mem­bers. In per­sis­tently weak job mar­kets (with a few notable excep­tions), unions tend to enforce aus­ter­ity on their mem­ber­ships.6 If over­all labor mar­ket con­di­tions – more than part-time or short-term employ­ment – make for inse­cu­rity, then the strength or weak­ness of the labor mar­ket is the yard­stick by which, in the first instance, we should mea­sure the extent of pre­car­ity.

Pre­car­ity is thus deter­mined, above all, by unem­ploy­ment rates.7 Between 1947 and 1973, the unem­ploy­ment rate was 4.8 per­cent on aver­age; after 1973, it rose to 6.5 per­cent. Since 1973, there has been one excep­tional period, 1995-2001, when the unem­ploy­ment rate returned to its pre-1973 level (that will be impor­tant, below). Exclud­ing these years, the post-1973 unem­ploy­ment rate rises to 6.9 per­cent, or 43 per­cent above the pre­vi­ous aver­age. This rise is not only due to the fact that unem­ploy­ment lev­els have been higher dur­ing reces­sions. Eco­nomic recov­er­ies are increas­ingly job­less recov­er­ies. Reduc­tions in unem­ploy­ment have taken longer every decade. Fol­low­ing the 1981 reces­sion, it took 27 months for employ­ment to attain its pre-reces­sion level; fol­low­ing the 1990 reces­sion, 30 months; fol­low­ing the 2000 reces­sion, 46 months. After the 2007 reces­sion, a labor mar­ket recov­ery took 6.3 years.

The trans­for­ma­tion in labor mar­ket con­di­tions has had rad­i­cally neg­a­tive con­se­quences for work­ers, since, in weaker job mar­kets, the costs of job loss are more sev­ere. Between 1984 and 2010, work­ers who were dis­placed and then found part- or full-time work saw wage cuts of 15 to 20 per­cent, on aver­age. In strong labor mar­kets, by con­trast, those same costs are com­par­a­tively minor: so for exam­ple, in the strong mar­ket of the late 1990s, dis­placed work­ers who found new work saw cuts of lit­tle more than 5 per­cent; work­ers who found full-time work saw no loss of income. Here is the rea­son why work­ers feel so inse­cure, today: in a slack labor mar­ket, job loss has sev­ere con­se­quences, since it is much harder to find a new job to replace the job one has lost.

Pre­cisely because they feel so inse­cure, most work­ers have been unable to resist a long-term dete­ri­o­ra­tion in their work­ing con­di­tions. Dur­ing the long boom, 1949-1973, real com­pen­sa­tion (wages + ben­e­fits) for pro­duc­tion and non­super­vi­sory work­ers rose by 2.6 per­cent per year. By con­trast, between 1974 and 2007, real com­pen­sa­tion lev­els were stag­nant. Look­ing at the trends more closely, we see that real com­pen­sa­tion actu­ally declined until 1995. Then, dur­ing the labor-mar­ket recov­ery of the late 1990s, com­pen­sa­tion lev­els recov­ered losses accu­mu­lated over two decades, in spite of the fact that union­iza­tion lev­els and the social safety net con­tin­ued to erode. When the labor mar­ket returned to its post-1973 norm, real com­pen­sa­tion lev­els stag­nated again.8

Post’s notion that the increased inse­cu­rity of employ­ment is a reflec­tion of the ris­ing costs of job loss – result­ing from the “rise of neolib­er­al­ism and the dis­man­tling of the wel­fare state” – rather than being an eco­nomic con­se­quence of a ris­ing pre­car­i­ous­ness of employ­ment is thus pro­foundly mis­taken. In fact, the coun­ter­po­si­tion is mis­lead­ing. Pace Post, work­ers’ “attach­ment to employ­ment has become more pre­car­i­ous,” mak­ing the weak­en­ing of state-man­dated pro­tec­tions that much more sev­ere.

Finally, it needs to be empha­sized that, as con­di­tions in the labor mar­ket have wors­ened for every­one, they have got­ten espe­cially bad for youth and peo­ple of color. Super-high lev­els of unem­ploy­ment have left both groups pro­foundly over­rep­re­sented among the ranks of the pre­car­i­ous, at the low-wage end of the labor mar­ket. The skew­ing of pre­car­ity towards that low-wage end is indi­cated, most sim­ply, by the fact that wage stag­na­tion is more sev­ere lower in the pay scale. For a worker at the 20th per­centile, real wages per hour rose by only 11 cents between 1973 and 2011; mean­while, for a worker at the 80th per­centile, wages rose by more than $5 per hour.9

Post fails to take on board the uneven dis­tri­b­u­tion of pre­car­ity and its con­se­quences, which is all the more sig­nif­i­cant in view of the large size of the inse­cure sec­tor of the labor mar­ket. The share of all jobs offer­ing health insur­ance, a retire­ment plan, and a real wage of at least $18.50 per hour (the median male wage in 1979 adjusted to cur­rent prices) fell from 27.4 per­cent in 1979 to 24.6 per­cent in 2010, even as out­put per worker rose from almost $70,000 to $103,000 per per­son. A siz­able expan­sion of labor pro­duc­tiv­ity has taken place alongside a nar­row­ing in the avail­abil­ity of secure work.10

The Neoliberal Present Is Not Like the Gilded Past

Because Post sees the degree of pre­car­ity as inversely related to the strength of wel­fare-state pro­tec­tions, he is led to argue that the present-day weak­en­ing of the wel­fare state, asso­ci­ated with neolib­er­al­ism, rep­re­sent a sim­ple return to the labor con­di­tions that reigned before the wel­fare state came into exis­tence. In other words, Post argues that con­di­tions in the lib­eral Gilded Age and the neolib­eral present are essen­tially iden­ti­cal, that they rep­re­sent a “norm” for cap­i­tal­ism, inter­rupted only by the unusual cli­mate that reigned in the after­math of the New Deal. Post can embrace this iden­tity between present and past only by ignor­ing cer­tain stark dif­fer­ences.

Since 1973, ris­ing pre­car­ity has been asso­ci­ated not only with the decline of the wel­fare state, but also with a slow­down in cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, a rise in unem­ploy­ment, and a decline in the avail­abil­ity of indus­trial jobs, all of which mark off the present from the Gilded Age past. Post denies the real­ity of both weak­en­ing growth and the his­tor­i­cal nov­elty of present-day dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, assert­ing “that the per­cent­age of work­ers employed indus­tri­ally has been shrink­ing from the 1880s and 1890s.” Thus, he can­not rec­og­nize why pre­car­i­ous­ness has become such a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the present.

To what extent do con­di­tions of work and strug­gle, today, actu­ally mir­ror those of the Gilded Age? Then, as now, rates of union­iza­tion were low and lim­ited to skilled work­ers. With notable excep­tions like the IWW, unions gen­er­ally ignored the semi-skilled and unskilled. Mean­while, there was no safety net for work­ers thrown out of work. These points form the basis of Post’s argu­ment that the present is essen­tially like the past. In real­ity, US labor mar­ket con­di­tions today are lit­tle like they were in the decades before World War I – and not only because in 1880, 50 per­cent of the labor force was still in agri­cul­ture. Major dif­fer­ences between the present and the past can eas­ily be demon­strated by look­ing at real-wage trends for unskilled work­ers.

Between 1880 and 1913, unskilled work­ers’ real wages rose by 1.5 per­cent per year.11 Recall that for pro­duc­tion and non­super­vi­sory work­ers, real com­pen­sa­tion was stag­nant between 1974 and 2007. How was it pos­si­ble for unskilled work­ers’ wages to rise so quickly, back then, in spite of an absence of unions and social pro­tec­tions? One rea­son is that labor mar­kets were tight: this was an era of labor under-sup­ply in the US. Many whites still had access to land. Mean­while, indige­nous pop­u­la­tions had mostly been erad­i­cated. Racist fac­tory-own­ers in the North were loath to attract Black share­crop­pers from the South, so, as the econ­omy boomed, huge num­bers of immi­grants were pulled in from Europe. Post argues that “in the 1890s, the vast major­ity of work­ing peo­ple lived an incred­i­bly pre­car­i­ous exis­tence,” but that was much less true in the US than it was in Europe. Immi­grants came to the US pre­cisely to escape much higher lev­els of pre­car­ity. Around the turn of the cen­tury, this coun­try saw one of the largest mass migra­tions in his­tory, yet real wages for unskilled work­ers con­tin­ued to rise.

On this basis, one can argue that, in cer­tain lim­ited respects, the lib­eral period, 1880-1913, was more like the age of man­aged cap­i­tal­ism, 1949-73, than it is like the present. In the for­mer two peri­ods, US labor mar­kets were tight and real wage growth was strong; today, the labor mar­ket is slack and wage growth has stag­nated. This is not even to men­tion other major dif­fer­ences between the late 1800s, when work­ers’ strug­gle was still largely defined by the fight to increase work­ers’ con­trol over pro­duc­tion, and the present, when work­ers’ loss of con­trol has been pushed to the extreme for all but a tiny minor­ity of high-tech engi­neers. Nor is it to men­tion that back then, the indus­trial work­force was still expand­ing, as com­pared to today, when it is shrink­ing.

Deindustrialization in the Long Downturn

What explains vari­a­tions among his­tor­i­cal peri­ods in labor mar­ket strength? The answer is sim­ple: per­sis­tently strong eco­nomic growth leads to tight labor mar­kets, improve­ments in work­ers’ bar­gain­ing power, and reduc­tions in pre­car­ity, while per­sis­tently weak eco­nomic growth leads to slack labor mar­kets and ris­ing pre­car­ity.12 Thus, to explain why labor mar­kets have weak­ened since 1973, we need to fig­ure out why the US econ­omy has become increas­ingly stag­nant. The best account of this ten­den­tial stag­na­tion remains Robert Brenner’s Eco­nom­ics of Global Tur­bu­lence.

At the begin­ning of the post­war period, the US econ­omy was unpar­al­leled in size and strength. Nev­er­the­less, fear­ing a return of eco­nomic depres­sion and the spread of com­mu­nism, the US used its eco­nomic might to sup­port recon­struc­tion of its for­mer eco­nomic com­peti­tors in Europe and in Japan, as well as their inte­gra­tion into the world econ­omy through free trade. This inte­gra­tion cre­ated the con­di­tions for a long eco­nomic boom. How­ever, the result­ing expan­sion of Euro­pean and Japan­ese pro­duc­tion did not com­ple­ment US pro­duc­tion. Instead, those coun­tries pro­duced an increas­ingly sim­i­lar mix of man­u­fac­tures, mak­ing for grow­ing redun­dancy in inter­na­tional mar­kets.

With lower wages and under­val­ued cur­ren­cies, effi­cient pro­duc­ers in Europe and Japan were even­tu­ally able to flood US mar­kets, out­com­pet­ing US firms. The result, in the mid 1960s, was ris­ing eco­nomic tur­bu­lence. By 1971-73, the pre­vail­ing inter­na­tional mon­e­tary order had col­lapsed: the US forced a reval­u­a­tion of Japan­ese and Euro­pean cur­ren­cies against the dol­lar, in order to even the eco­nomic play­ing field. At the same time, US employ­ers under­took a mas­sive cam­paign against work­ers, which Post describes in his inter­view. What Post does not say is that all these efforts were only par­tially suc­cess­ful: in the end, global over­pro­duc­tion per­sisted.

The con­se­quence was a long down­turn in eco­nomic growth rates across high-income coun­tries: GDP per cap­ita growth rates for those coun­tries fell from 4.3 per­cent per year, on aver­age, in the 1960s to 2.8 per­cent in the 70s, 2.3 per­cent in the 80s, 1.8 per­cent in the 90s, and 1.2 per­cent in the 2000s.13 One con­se­quence of ever slower growth was higher lev­els of unem­ploy­ment and so also wors­en­ing work­ing con­di­tions. This wors­en­ing was cer­tainly medi­ated by work­ers’ degree of orga­ni­za­tion and by the extent of social safety nets. How­ever, in no case did these turn back over­all trends.

On this basis, it is easy to under­stand dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, defined as an ongo­ing decline in the man­u­fac­tur­ing employ­ment share. “The real­ity” is not that “the per­cent­age of work­ers employed indus­tri­ally has been shrink­ing since the 1880s and 1890s.” On the con­trary, this per­cent­age rose into the early post-war period. Mean­while, total man­u­fac­tur­ing employ­ment expanded until the mid 1960s, when the US mar­ket was flooded with Euro­pean and Japan­ese goods. It was at this point that dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion set in. In fact, begin­ning in the early 1970s, with the start of the long down­turn, dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion became com­mon across all high-income coun­tries.

Recall that this down­turn had been cen­tered in inter­na­tional mar­kets for man­u­fac­tures; we can see the effects of that, sta­tis­ti­cally. In the US, out­put growth rates in man­u­fac­tur­ing fell more sub­stan­tially, in the down­turn, than they did in the econ­omy as a whole. Before the down­turn, man­u­fac­tur­ing growth was 10 per­cent faster than over­all eco­nomic growth; after­wards, it was 20 per­cent slower. No growth-engine replaced man­u­fac­tur­ing: GDP growth was almost 40 per­cent lower in the years after 1973.

This quan­ti­ta­tive reduc­tion in eco­nomic growth rates pro­duced, as an effect, dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, a qual­i­ta­tive trans­for­ma­tion in employ­ment. Due to global over­pro­duc­tion, US man­u­fac­tur­ing out­put growth rates fell sub­stan­tially. Mean­while, pro­duc­tiv­ity lev­els rose slightly: in order to main­tain their posi­tions in more com­pet­i­tive mar­kets, firms had to raise pro­duc­tiv­ity lev­els, regard­less of depressed con­di­tions. As a result, it was now pos­si­ble to meet all of the increase in the demand for man­u­fac­tures while sig­nif­i­cantly reduc­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing work­force. Dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion is surely a mat­ter of “mech­a­niza­tion,” as Post sug­gests. But he stops short of pro­vid­ing a full account. Dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion is a mat­ter of mech­a­niza­tion tak­ing place in the con­text of sev­ere con­stric­tions on the growth of out­put, as occurred dur­ing the long down­turn.


Where does all this leave us with regard to the ques­tion of pre­car­ity? Is there a specif­i­cally pre­car­i­ous “layer” of the work­force, or is pre­car­ity gen­er­al­iz­ing across all work­ers? The answer is yes, both state­ments are true. In a weak labor mar­ket – and when work­ers are under attack by neolib­eral pol­icy changes – the entire class is squeezed. Mean­while, the layer of the class that works under dis­tinctly inse­cure con­di­tions expands. Is the lat­ter an increas­ingly fixed layer? To some extent, it is. When labor mar­kets are slack, it is harder for poor work­ers to fight their way out of pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions. This is both a cause and a con­se­quence of ris­ing inequal­ity. At the same time, extreme inse­cu­rity remains, for many, a tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion, whether that is a mat­ter of life stages or of job loss dur­ing a reces­sion.

In the end, the argu­ment over pre­car­ity is a polit­i­cal one. In order to defend the idea that social­ist strate­gies today need not dif­fer sub­stan­tially from those of the past, Post essen­tially claims things are the same as they ever were. That is sim­ply not true.14




  1. All sub­se­quent quo­ta­tions from Char­lie Post, “We’re All Pre­car­i­ous Now,” Jacobin Mag­a­zine, April 20, 2015. 

  2. All data from the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics (BLS) unless oth­er­wise noted. 

  3. Accord­ing to the US Gov­ern­ment Account­abil­ity Office (GAO), which recently updated a sur­vey of non-stan­dard work last con­ducted by the BLS in 2005 ( The GAO dis­tin­guishes between and “core-con­tin­gent” work­ers, who work for temp agen­cies or as on-call work­ers, and a broader mea­sure of “con­tin­gent” work­ers, used by the BLS, which includes inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors among oth­ers. How­ever, the GAO report finds that con­tin­gent work­ers in gen­eral “are more likely than stan­dard work­ers to expe­ri­ence job insta­bil­ity,” and also that “in addi­tion to lower earn­ings,” they are “less likely to have work-pro­vided ben­e­fits.”


  4. All data on employ­ment tenure from Henry Far­ber, “Job Loss and the Decline in Job Secu­rity in the United States,” in Labor in the New Econ­omy (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 2010), eds. Katharine G. Abra­ham, James R. Splet­zer, and Michael Harper, 223-62. 

  5. Data on pre­car­ity from The State of Work­ing Amer­ica web­site,

  6. The strike-wave that started in 1933, which led to the found­ing of the CIO, is an impor­tant excep­tion, but it is worth remem­ber­ing that John L. Lewis and the rest of the CIO lead­er­ship were already mov­ing against strikes and push­ing for com­pro­mises with both firms and Democ­rats by 1937. 

  7. Under­em­ploy­ment rates, which include invol­un­tary part-time work­ers, as well as dis­cour­aged work­ers and so-called mar­gin­ally attached work­ers, provide a fuller pic­ture, but these are unavail­able before 1994. Between 1994 and the present, under­em­ploy­ment rates have aver­aged 10.7 per­cent. 

  8. If their real wages are stag­nat­ing, work­ers face height­ened pres­sures to accept all sorts of other abuses, as well: losses of ben­e­fits, increased risks to safety, sex­ual harass­ment, wage-theft, and so on. In a slack labor mar­ket, work­ers know that there are many oth­ers, just like them, who are look­ing for work and not find­ing it. Work­ers are thus less likely to leave their cur­rent jobs, even if ter­ri­ble, to look for bet­ter ones, while unem­ployed work­ers are more likely to take the first ter­ri­ble job that comes along. 

  9. Dur­ing the 1949-1973 boom, incomes for the poorest work­ers rose faster than those of the pop­u­la­tion as a whole. 

  10. In this con­text, it is worth­while to men­tion Marx’s argu­ments regard­ing the defor­ma­tion of labor mar­kets under con­di­tions of a low demand for labor. In Cap­i­tal, Marx dis­cusses the expan­sion of a “sur­plus pop­u­la­tion,” whose attach­ment to labor mar­kets becomes more pre­car­i­ous, even as soci­ety becomes more wealthy. Marx points out that the sur­plus pop­u­la­tions of his day made ends meet in a vari­ety of ways: by return­ing to the coun­tryside, by float­ing in and out indus­trial work, or by fun­nel­ing into super-exploited sec­tors, such as domes­tic labor. The point is that work­ers’ responses to slack labor mar­kets can­not be neatly sum­ma­rized in one sta­tis­tic. As in Marx’s time, so too, today, there is a dynamism to pre­car­ity: work­ers respond to poor prospects by work­ing part-time, work­ing mul­ti­ple jobs, chang­ing jobs fre­quently, or sim­ply by resign­ing them­selves to low-pay­ing jobs in Wal­mart-like con­di­tions. They also return to school, join the army, and work infor­mally or ille­gally. Some­times, pre­car­i­ous work­ers respond to poor prospects dif­fer­ently, by tak­ing direct action, thereby forc­ing wages upwards and improv­ing their work­ing con­di­tions. 

  11. Cal­cu­lated from The His­tor­i­cal Sta­tis­tics of the United States, Mil­len­nium Online Edi­tion, Table Ba4218, “Index of money wages for unskilled labor: 1774–1974,” deflated using Table Cc2, “Con­sumer price indexes, for all items.” 

  12. An excep­tion is found in coun­tries with large peas­ant pop­u­la­tions, and thus high lev­els of dis­guised unem­ploy­ment. Then, there may be no real wage growth, in spite of eco­nomic growth. Instead, there is a mas­sive trans­for­ma­tion in the eco­nomic struc­ture, shift­ing the work­force from agri­cul­ture to indus­try and ser­vices. That has not his­tor­i­cally been true in set­tler-colo­nial coun­tries, like the US, where the com­mon prob­lem is labor under­sup­ply. 

  13. Cal­cu­lated from the World Bank’s World Devel­op­ment Indi­ca­tors

  14. We in End­notes have writ­ten else­where about how trans­for­ma­tions in the employ­ment struc­tures have affected the char­ac­ter of class strug­gle, but I will refrain from recit­ing these argu­ments here. See, for exam­ple, “The Hold­ing Pat­tern,” and “A Ris­ing Tide Lifts All Boats,” both from End­notes 3. 

Author of the article

is an editor of Endnotes.