“I can always hire half of the precariat to algorithmically enslave the other half.” Jay Gould, the notorious railroad baron, made that statement after the Great Railroad Strike of 1886. Well, maybe I’m paraphrasing a bit, but if he were alive today, he might say something like that. Precarity— the idea that our living is increasingly given over to uncertainty, instability, risk, and fear— seems to be increasing.
A rotting social safety net in many nations, the rise of automation and robotic workforces, efficiency-optimizing scheduling software, more unwanted part-time work, stagnant real incomes, and a host of other trends are driving a future of more stressful, more dehumanizing work. As observed in a recent New York Times article that chronicled the everyday impact on many workers today, “the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: ‘How many hours do you work?’ and ‘What do you earn?’”
But one person’s flexploitation is another person’s entrepreneurial empowerment. The cult of disruption requires unequal sacrificial offerings. Some of those same “disruptive” technologies are allowing people to escape the iron claw of bureaucratic corporate jobs, and scale up according to their own creativity and ambition. The so-called “creative class,” usually associated with designers, consultants, artists, programmers, and other cultural service providers can now advertise and connect with clients much more easily and efficiently than ever before. The transaction costs (the return on time and energy investment) of being a freelancer or entrepreneur are lower than they’ve ever been, thanks to digital networks, easy access to online training and knowledge bases, and streamlined management and organizational applications. What dozens of people, with years of effort, and millions of dollars could do, can now be done by a few folks, over a weekend, with almost no money.
Etsy and similar peer-to-peer markets allow people, and in Etsy’s case 94% women, to sell their creations directly. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowdfunding sites now make it possible for independent artists, entrepreneurs, designers, and makers of all stripes find the financial sponsorship they need. Whether it’s the absurdity of funding potato salad, the unleashed fandom of a beloved TV show, or the bold vision of creating personal submarines, if you can dream it, these days you have a good chance of making it.
But it’s not only the creative class who are seeing new opportunities. Platforms like ODesk, Elance, and Mechanical Turk are connecting a global talent pool of job seekers with employers. This army of connected micro-taskers— from nuclear physicists in Pakistan, to housewives in the Philippines, to part-time nurses in Canada, and almost any other combination of location, class, and demographic category— have more and new ways to extract value from their contributions and labor, i.e. to work.
But while it’s never been easier to be a freelancer, or to start a business, it is no less risky. The ad hoc, capricious, no benefits, opportunistic nature of work that has been associated with certain stereotypes (the itinerant artist on one end and seasonal migrant worker on the other) is moving from the marginal edges and into the mainstream, normalized mode of working. And as we burn the employment candle on both ends, we have to ask ourselves as a society, ‘who benefits from this system?,’ ‘who suffers?,’ and ultimately ‘what kinds of lives do we really want?’
The answer to these questions, especially the last one, will differ depending on which segment of the precariat we ask. A Los Angeles maker-designer who’s trying to launch a drone t-shirt delivery service in her time off from a meaningless retail job will have different experiences and desires than those of a recent immigrant to Austria from the Ukraine, who is trying to find a stable and sustainable income to support a family. But are there enough common experiences, common desires, and common needs to create solidarity amongst the precariat? Will the family who are renting out their guest room via AirBnB relate to the cabdrivers in Turin who are protesting Uber? Will the freelance programmer who’s working on a new scheduling algorithm find a kinship with the barista who makes his latte and will be “clopening” (working the closing shift one night and the opening shift the next morning) the Starbucks? Is there enough “shared” in the sharing economy™ to bind the tired, the poor, the huddled workers who, whether by choice or necessity, have been rendered precarious? Are these groups peer enough in the p2p economy™? Does it matter?
Andrew Ross, in an insightful review of this “new geography of work,” thinks that while this multi-class coalition might be fraught with cultural, political, and aesthetic contradictions and tensions, those bound by insecurity could find common cause and create a political movement with some teeth. This coalition would need to find a metaphor, mythology, or narrative that can confront and supplant the neoliberal construction that “the condition of entry into the new high-stakes lottery is to leave your safety gear at the door.” Along with the story or vision around a “quality of work life,” then, would come a coherentpanoply of public policy recommendations, market innovations, and social experiments. The labor movement of the 20th century will provide little such material. The world of industrial capital has been transformed already, and shows no signs of settling into a predictable pattern, other than increased uncertainty.
I’m not prepared to offer a grand narrative for the precariat in this essay, but we can look at a few diverse examples of responses to precariousness that might provoke or inspire new ideas. It could be that pieces of all these strategies, and many more unmentioned here, will signal important directions for the future political-economies of work.
Debt and precariousness go hand in hand. The rise in consumer and student loan debt since the 1980s has been staggering, and, many argue, has been the artificial fuel for the growth of the economy over the last generation. If, in order to participate fully and productively in society, we have to take on debt, then we are again rendered precarious and vulnerable to control. One group, Strike Debt, advocates a broad social resistance movement to pull the rug out from under the debt system entirely. In their Debt Resistors Operations Manual, they lay out their values and their goal in clear terms:
“We gave the banks the power to create money because they promised to use it to help up live healthier and prosperous lives— not to turn into frightened peons. They broke that promise. We are under no moral obligation to keep our promise to liars and thieves. In fact, we are morally obligated to find a way to stop this system rather than continuing to perpetuate it.”
This direct, collective action on one aspect of precarity might appeal most strongly to “Occupy Wall Street” types today, but as people continue to be crushed by the weight of debt (over $1.2 trillion and counting in student loan debt alone), and under policies and regulations seemingly written by the lenders, debt-politics will only become more significant and influential.
When we think of quintessential low-skilled jobs, “flipping burgers” is unusually one of the first to spring to mind. Momentum Machines, a San Francisco robotics company, is attempting to “disrupt” the food service industry by creating automated systems that can make “the perfect hamburger.” If successful, the company knows that it will be putting people out of work. And instead of simply letting the invisible hand of creative destruction run its course, the company has offered to give educational opportunities and engineering/design technical training to those who’ve been made redundant by their machines. While it is too soon to say whether this is a marketing or PR ploy (steel-washing?), Momentum Machines is at least acknowledging their role in a potential seismic shift in the system of work, and taking some responsibility for helping those who have been negatively impacted by their robots.
A raft of policy and regulatory responses to increasing precarity have been emerging over the years.
Mayors and city councils around the U.S. are pushing regulations that will ensure some stability for employees, and unions and national issue campaigns like the Fair Workweek Initiative are helping lobby for more worker protections. However, business leaders are pushing back. Many like Scott Defire of the National Restaurant association argue that additional government oversight over operations “isn’t conducive to a positive business climate.”
But there are more radical ideas that might mitigate some of this need for “non-conducive” regulation. One that has been embraced by some on the right and the left of the political spectrum is a universal basic income, or basic income guarantee (BIG). A BIG would provide all adult citizens with an unconditionally awarded income.
In theory, this would replace most or all other forms of state welfare, and people could still work and earn income above what their BIG provides. While economists argue over whether a BIG would be financially viable for a nation, the momentum for some kind of guaranteed, universal award has grown. A rising class of disgruntled, precariously employed citizens who have been displaced and disempowered by the forces of automation, repression, debt, surveillance, and other forms of social control might soon demand a radical solution like BIGs, and those in power just might see the need to give it to them.
Pro Bono for the Precariat?
As you’ve read throughout this volume, innovative social enterprises and business models are another vector for those working in various creative service industries to “give back” to others in order to effect systems level improvements in work, health, environment, and other domains. How might the “creative class” improve the lives of low-skilled precarious workers? Forming a collation of the precarious and lobbying for legislation and regulation that curb the worst abuses of employer power would be one possibility. But it could also be more direct and granular. As MIT retail operations researcher Zeynep Ton notes, “the same technology [used to create stressful, inhuman work schedules] could be used to create more stability and predictability.” How might we use design, digital technology, aesthetics, and collaborative techniques to connect and empower the precariat at every level and location? How might we learn to surf the giant wave of contingency? That is a challenge, but a noble and necessary one if we care about making better futures for all.
“An epic, operatic struggle is at hand,” Bruce Sterling told a conference of makers in Barcelona this year.There are very little indicators, or even rationale, for going back to a more typical 20th century work modality that is stable and predictable (and boring and soul-suckingly bureaucratic in many cases). Flexibility, casualization, freelancing, sharing, digital tethering, the disappearance of work-life divide, self entrepreneurship, lightweight innovation, and all the other elements of a fragmented, episodic work environment are here to stay (in some form, at least for a generation or two). But we don’t have to trade soul-sucking bureaucracy for soul-sucking precarity.
Complexity scientists have a concept, called metastability, that describes systems that are able to sustain themselves even though they are not in their lowest energy states (which systems tend toward). If absolute security/stability and absolute chaos/precarity are the two lowest energy poles, then we will have to design systems (with technology, policy, culture, economics, architecture, stories) that can provide flexibility and innovative opportunities while not unfairly burdening workers and their families (and ultimately society at large) with those added risks. Debt reform, worker retraining, government regulation, and social reciprocity are a few ways we might move ourselves toward a more metastable work environment. Every day might be different, but there’s a more consistent pattern over months or years. We can imagine a scenario in which I might not know exactly what work I will be doing over the coming days or weeks, but I know I will have some kind of work, a guaranteed minimum income, and the opportunity to use my skills to find more money, more satisfaction, more time, or more creativity along the way.
34 “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” Quoted inFoner, Philip Sheldon (1998). History of the Labor Movement in the United States Vol. 2: From the Founding of the A. F. of L. to the Emergence of American Imperialism (2nd ed.). International Publishers, Co., Inc. p. 51.
35 Guy Standing, The Precariat: A New Dangerous Class.
37 Lightweight Innovation, http://www.iftf.org/our-work/people-technology/technology-horizons/lightweight-innovation/
38 Andrew Ross, “The New Geography of Work: Power to the Precarious?” Theory, Culture, and Society 25 (7-8).
39 Ross, p. 36.
45 Bruce Sterling, FAB10 talk, citation TK.