The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

Story by Sydne Mass | mass.sy@husky.neu.edu

The precariat, as defined by sociologists and economists, represents a social class of people who live their lives in precarity, or without financial security or stability. They are often characterized as the victims of chronic joblessness. Guy Standing, a British economist and professor at the University of London, developed this theory in his book, “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” published in 2011. On Feb. 22, Standing spoke to students and faculty at Northeastern University about the growing relevance and influence of the precariat in contemporary politics.

Facing the crowd of approximately 100 college students in the Raytheon Amphitheater, Standing defined the precariat as the newest social class that members of the audience would someday belong to. Educated young people, according to Standing, are one of three categories that make up the precariat. “People’s level of education today is above labor,” he said, explaining that the commodification of college degrees is causing them to lose value and become increasingly unimportant.

“College students are promised a career, but they realize all they bought is a lottery ticket,” he said. Students today hope for a change that will give renewed value to their skills and abilities, but for now most struggle with acquiring a steady income that will support them, Standing said.

Along with college-educated millennials, there are those whom Standing referred to as the atavists– people whose parents worked jobs in the agricultural sector, factories, or manual production industries. The atavists do not typically have degrees and now find themselves unable to obtain the jobs that their parents once had. “They reflect on the past they lost,” he said. “They tend to be racist, leaning towards neo-fascism and far-right movements.”

The precariat became known around 2008 during the financial crisis in the U.S. People who had job security lost it; people who believed  they were safe from want and need lost everything. These individuals who slipped from the proletariat– the working class– to the precariat have become increasingly angry at the state of their lives, and blame the government for their losses. Now, with the ongoing presidential race, the precariat’s voice has grown and sparked a new political wave, attracting a new kind of candidate– the anti-establishment underdog.

“Politicians like Bernie are starting to break the mold,” said Standing. He explained that the reason Sanders, the Vermont senator and democratic candidate, is soaring in popularity among younger generations stems from the same frustration that is allowing Donald Trump, the businessman and front-runner for the GOP nomination, to be so successful. The precariat allows for both politicians to give a voice to individuals who have previously felt voiceless. These political changes also affect the third group constituting the precariat– the nostalgics, who are mainly migrants and refugees. “They are demonized [by the atavists],” he said.

The precariat’s growing socio-economic class has an impact on election cycles, as is noticeable right now, but its influence extends much further. “The precariat is needed and wanted,” said Standing. Although they balance on the edge of debt and rely on low-paying, volatile jobs, they also contribute to much of the change in the world. “People in the precariat don’t see themselves as failures– they see a lot of people just like them,” he said. This sense of relatability within the group fosters community which in turn prompts people to fight for what they believe in. “The occupy movement, the Arab Spring, they were led by the precariat,” he said.

The future of the precariat lies in its recognition by the governments in power, Standing said. An increasing amount of people are transitioning from the proletariat into the precariat, making their presence and opinions more and more important. According to Standing, politicians are the ones who must ensure job security and provide an established income for every worker. He attributes the current wave of anger seen in politics right now as a direct result of the government’s failure to address the needs of the precariat. “Things need to be fundamentally different than what they have been,” Standing said. “We need to accept flexibility.”