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the precariat

noun [singular] informal

a social group consisting of people whose lives are difficult because they have little or no job security and few employment rights

'John Harris meets low-paid and insecure workers in Swansea and London caught in a race to the bottom, and hears about the rise of the precariat.'

The Guardian 16th February 2011

In the tough economic climate of 2011, the reality of budget cuts, job insecurity and diminished employment rights has been captured in a new socio-economic term, the precariat. The precariat describes a social class of people whose lives are 'precarious' because their employment situation provides them with very little or no financial stability.

the emergence of the precariat is thought to be a direct result of employment policies in our modern, global economy

The emergence of the precariat is thought to be a direct result of employment policies in our modern, global economy. New, international labour markets, significantly expanding the available workforce, have weakened the position of workers and strengthened the position of employers. Increasingly, workers are in jobs which are part-time and/or temporary, have unpredictable hours, low wages and few benefits such as holiday or sick pay. This means that employers can follow what demand dictates and simply strike people off if work is not available, and are also not obliged to pay anyone that isn't actually working. Workers lives are in turn 'precarious', because their income is never guaranteed – sickness and changes in the job market could threaten their employment and land them in a position of financial insecurity.

The term precariat has recently hit the spotlight in relation to the economic situation in the UK. It's been argued that government cuts in public spending and Prime Minister David Cameron's call to maintain a 'flexible and dynamic labour market' have made the term relevant across all sections of society. As budgets have been cut, so the axe has fallen on public sector jobs. The consequences are bleak, with any new jobs likely to be insecure, and rising unemployment forcing wages and/or working conditions even further downward. 'Flexibility' has often been interpreted as an increased reliance on agency staff, who rapidly come and go, and are employed on inferior terms. Such factors, exacerbated by the cost of living rising much faster than average pay, mean that a growing proportion of British workers could be deemed members of the precariat.

Background – the precariat

The term precariat dates back to the 1980s, when French sociologists used it to define unprotected, temporary workers as a new social class. It also exists as a term in French (précariat), Italian (precariato) and German (Prekariat), with shifts in meaning determined by the time, place and social context in which it is used. In Britain, the term was recently brought into the public eye by Guy Standing, an economics professor from the University of Bath, who uses it in the title of his forthcoming book: Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury 2011).

Precariat is a blend of adjective precarious and noun proletariat, a word used to describe working-class people as a social group. Proletariat has its origins in Latin proletarius, which denoted a person who had no wealth in property and whose only way of serving the state was by producing offspring.

Stemming from a wave of opposition to economic globalization, there's also some evidence for a related neologism precarity, a noun describing 'a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare'. Precarity is most commonly associated with workers who leave their home country to compete for low-paid retail and service jobs.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 9th May 2011.

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