The Precariat

The presseurop website recently ran a story titled “Youthful Members of the Full-time Precariat”—a relatively new word coined to describe the strata of society that lives in a continual state of economic precariousness in the wake of globalization and the current world financial crisis. (For other words spawned by the crisis, see my prior post on neologisms.) Precariedad (Spanish), precariedade (Portuguese), précarité (French), precarietà (Italian) and prekariat (German and various Eastern European languages) all translate as precariousness, a word that was rebaptized by sociologists around the year 2000 as precarity. The term precarity was familiar to me from the writings of social scientists, who use it to describe the working conditions of a new post-Fordist marketplace in which a wide range of professionals now sell their services on a limited-time basis subject to the varying needs of their clients and employers. “Precariat” is a neologism forged out of the words precarity and proletariat. According to social scientists, the precariat differs from the proletariat in that it is fragmented and dispersed in a way that the proletariat, which shared workspaces, union activities, and often neighborhood affiliations, was not. I was somewhat surprised to learn from the presseurop article that the Latin word precarius, from which the English words precariousness, precarity, and precariat are all derived, literally means “obtained by prayer.”

Although the words  “precarity” and “precariat” have not yet found their way into the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, this dictionary includes the following entry for precarious:

pre·car·i·ous (\pri-‚kar-‡-„s, -‚ker-\ adj; L precarius obtained by entreaty, uncertain — more at PRAYER (1646)
1 : depending on the will or pleasure of another
2 : dependent on uncertain premises : DUBIOUS ‹precarious generalizations›
3 a : dependent on chance circumstances, unknown conditions, or uncertain developments
b : characterized by a lack of security or stability that threatens with danger; syn: see DANGEROUS
— pre·car·i·ous·ly adv — pre·car·i·ous·ness n

In these precarious times, praying (literally or figuratively) for economic stability and security  has become an increasingly common practice in both religious and secular societies. Variations of the expression “living on a hope and prayer” are cropping up everywhere in media content. In the conservative website Human Events, Armstrong Williams describes U.S. President Barak Obama’s political campaign for a second term as being “on a hope and a prayer” and the Capitol Weekly described the American government’s 2011-2012 budget as being a “hope and prayer budget.” Fiduciary Trust International makes the third-quarter observation “Without political union, Europe-wide economic policymaking is a hope and a prayer at best.”

Precarious employment has long been an issue in Spain, where the most stable contract an employee can hope for is (somewhat ironically) referred to as an “indefinite” contract. While one might expect short-term contracts in a wide range of seasonal industries such as tourism and agriculture, the practice of offering short-term employment agreements is endemic in all sectors. I personally know a young doctor in Barcelona who has worked for more than a year under a series of two and three-month renewable contracts and my nephew, who holds a master’s degree, has recently accepted a year-long internship contract that requires him to perform a high level of professional work for a salary that barely covers the cost of his daily commute. Although the precariat is composed primarily of young people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, its ranks have been swollen by other groups that also suffer chronic underemployment or extended unemployment such as immigrants, women, and blue-collar workers of all ages.

My entry into the American labor force in the mid-1970s and the opportunities available to me throughout my working life have been very different. I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to pick and choose what I’ve done for a living. Ironically, my generation grew up with family stories of the Great Depression and wartime rationing and stern warnings that one should always be prepared for the worst, whereas today’s young precariatans, as they are sometimes referred to, were brought up to expect a bright, shiny world of endless entrepreneurial possibilities backed by a watertight social safety net. My generation may have struggled through the 70s energy crisis and other bumps in the road, but we never doubted that things would get better and there were always opportunities for those willing to work hard and think creatively. Young people today are caught in a fundamental game change fraught with uncertainty. They are suddenly learning that “beggars can’t be choosers,” or as the Spanish saying goes “a buen hambre no hay pan duro.”

Not content with singing along to Bon Jovi, the European precariat has invented its own satirical version of living on a prayer known as the cult of San Precario. A creation of the Chainworkers, an Italian social action group, the saint has miraculously appeared in dozens of places,from an Italian supermarket to the Milan Book Fair. San Precario has also emulated Martin Luther’s gesture of nailing 95 theses for reform on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany by unfurling a banner with 95 theses of precarity from an upper window of the Milan stock exchange. As saints are known to show up where the suffering is greatest, he has also made several appearances in Spain.

Although the saint’s official day is February 29, San Precario is also trotted out on EuroMayDay as part of an effort to put new life into traditional European May Day celebrations. The protests carried out by the Chainworkers and similar groups reflect a shift from what historian Richard Vinen describes as “the puritanical assumption that suffering produces a better society.” He notes in his book A History in Fragments, Europe in the Twentieth Century that modern protest in Europe seems “to be modeled on the Glastonbury Festival.” Although one must take into account the fact that the author made this observation at the dawn of a new millennium when things in general looked a whole lot rosier, his assertion still more or less holds true. Attitudes have changed with the times. The youth of today’s Europe demonstrate more across-the-board solidarity than their grandparents did in similar circumstances and young men today are less apt to blame the incorporation of immigrants and women into the workforce for their present lack of professional opportunities. As Magdalena Freudenschuss has noted, San Precario is a transgender phenomenon that sometimes appears to the faithful as Santa Precaria.

 The European urban planners who communicate through the “e-urban online think tank,” cast doubt on the usefulness of the term precariat and even consider it to be misleading as used by politicians in their languages. Any translator or editor will freely admit that popular neologisms like precarity, precariat and transversal—or any word that doesn’t appear in a reputable dictionary—keep them up at night. The same flickering doubts that linger in the minds of the e-urban researchers haunt us as well: Can you really say that? Does it really mean anything? Could it be misleading? The e-urban group pays special attention to neologisms that drive academic thought and public policy: “Words are powerful. Often, it is the word that defines the way of thinking, and not the thought that gives birth to a word. That is why we try to be alert, so as not to give in to the power of words that may contaminate our thinking.”

When the acolytes of San Precario punctuate their anger and frustration with humor and wordplay, they say what they mean and mean what they say, in truth and in jest. At one point in time, thought gave birth to the word precariat and since that moment the movement has put a lot of creative effort into making the concept go viral, one supposes in the hope that the word would, indeed, define a new way of thinking. Reflecting on my own memories of protests during the 1960s and 70s, I’ve got to say that today’s young people have broader horizons and demonstrate more creativity than my generation. Ending a May Day prayer for such things as paid maternity leave and affordable opportunities for higher education with cries of Mayday! Mayday! (in the sense of the distress signal drawn from the French venez m’aider—come help me) is a great demonstration of self-deprecating wit and creative anarchy. It reminds me a lot of Woody Allen’s sense of humor before he lost his edge and went all warm and fuzzy.