The mind of the Precariat...?

07 December 2011

James Egan discusses the 'Precariat' and the recent seminar delivered by Prof Guy Standing

As they used to say in the 1930s – ‘Are you working?’ If you are, here are some quick questions to consider:

  • Do you feel secure in your job and if so, does it reflect your abilities and provide opportunity for progress?
  • Do you feel protected from a hire-and-fire culture, from accidents at work or illness, or from being pressed into working long hours without extra pay?
  • Is your regular pay adequate and stable enough, and would you feel protected if help from the benefits system became a necessity?

If you mainly answered no, then you might be entering, or already have entered, a new and significant global class of people called the Precariat, according to Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath. Standing’s new book (The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class) was the basis of his presentation as the first presenter of GCPH’s winter seminar series.  At the core of his argument was the notion that the old twentieth century class structures are being replaced by new ones that are work in progress - shaped from the mid-1970s onwards by globalisation.  He argues that free market forces are being extended across many aspects of daily life including family, education, social protection, unemployment and disability, and that a parallel rising culture of surveillance and liberal paternalism (thinkbehavioural economics’ and ‘nudge theory’) is also encroaching on personal freedom.  

What struck me during his wide-ranging presentation was the dominant picture of the Precariat as a floating labour supply, lacking common vision and having no “shadow of the future”, which lessens their sense of empathy and reciprocity but increases short-term, opportunistic behaviour. (There are some happier exceptions within the Precariat, such as retired people with an adequate pension holding down a part-time job.) 

Against this dispiriting backdrop, he suggested that a ‘precariatised’ mind is being shaped by four A’s of anger, anxiety, anomie and alienation.  Manifestations of this  mindset include the anger of the global ‘occupy movements’; anxious “multi-multi-tasking”, linked to networking, and always keeping your job options open; an aimless sense of weekend over-consumption of shopping or drinking; and, an alienating sense of people having to do things they don’t want to do and unable to pursue personal or career fulfilment.  

This reminded me of the “Afternow” work on culture that Phil Hanlon and colleagues at Glasgow University are doing which proposes that many people feel this sense of personal disconnect with the 21st century, and undertake damaging behaviours to cope.

If this is a realistic description of the mindset of many people holding down a full-time or part-time job today, then what are the future implications? 

It may be a timely question to consider as the Scottish Government consults on a new national strategy to improve mental health over the next four years and a new GCPH report reveals stark mental health inequalities in Greater Glasgow and Clyde compared with other parts of Scotland.  These inequalities include higher levels of harmful alcohol behaviour, depression and anxiety that sit aside lower levels of community participation across all population groups – fertile Precariat themes?  Moreover, the GCPH report identifies some of the key challenges ahead, such as addressing behavioural, cultural and poverty factors.    

In addition to these factors, and the rise of in-work poverty, do we need to also consider what the future occupational identity of the Precariat might mean for other mental health inequalities work?  For instance, the National Statistics Socioeconomic Classification (NS-SEC), which is the primary social classification in the UK, contains 17 occupational groups that can also be collapsed into three hierarchical groups - managerial and professional; intermediate; routine and manual.  Within these current categories where does the concept of the Precariat, and the other six emerging groups he describes, fit in?

Arguably, the concept of the Precariat has strong thematic links to other past work.  At times during the presentation, I was reminded of Michael Marmot’s work on the impact of social status on population health, Wilkinson and Pickett’s Spirit Level, particularly on the issues of mental health and trust, and the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of a  ‘liquid life’ which he has defined as a “precarious life, lived under conditions of constant uncertainty.”  Nevertheless, it was refreshing to hear an expert voice on Economic Security and Labour Market theory crossover into population mental health themes when describing the ‘precariatised’ mind and its possible manifestations. 

Moreover, his policy prescriptions, such as the need for a new “politics of time” and a Basic Income (i.e. unconditional income granted to all individuals without means test or work requirement) prompted much food for thought on addressing the wider determinants of health.

On a final small note, the packed audience at this seminar were invited to take a few minutes to chat with each other about the presentation, before moving into a question and answer session with Guy Standing.  I was acutely aware of the high noise levels during those few minutes and wondered if a chord had been struck.  However, don’t take my word for it, click here to find out if Standing’s concept of the Precariat resonates with you… 


About the author

James Egan Public Health Programme Manager


James Egan is a Public Health Programme Manager and jointly leads the work programme ‘Tackling inequality across the life course’ with Fiona Crawford. Some of the key areas being developed under this new programme of work include:

  • Improving understanding of continuing welfare changes with a focus on the roll out of Universal Credit and associated developments around in-work conditionality
  • Understanding and promoting equity of access to services by vulnerable population groups
  • An early years focus that includes improving understanding of the causal pathways between Adverse Childhood Experiences and health outcomes and evaluation of childcare, early learning and interventions.
  • Work to explore the potential of new forms of social protection in a 21st century context

In his current role, James is leading and supporting the development of work on welfare changes and equity of access to services by vulnerable population groups. He is also working with partner agencies to explore the potential of new forms of social protection in a 21st century context.

Read all articles by James Egan