Flexibility Culture, The Gig Economy, and the Rise of the Precariat


The point being made in the previous video
about Mental Health, Modern Society, and Individualisation was that our current system is making us sick
and not only that, it’s also profiting off the damage. One of the major causes of this sickness is
the “precarity” of modern labour. Not only does this condition of precarity
affect the Gig Economy of Deliveroo and Uber drivers, but also zero-hour contract workers
in hospitality and other sectors, and, increasingly, traditional professionals such as would-be-tenured
professors who are now simply fixed-contract associates, alongside a plethora of other
workers from previously stable long-term careers who have now been relegated into the positions
of being merely short-term contractors. Together, these workers have combined and
led to the rise of what’s now widely known as “the precariat”, and to the fall in the
quality of life for all its members Yayyyyy…. Hey, you! Please: “Subscribe to Paul’s channel – he
loves that! He’s just, like, joking around, but he really
wants subscribers. It’s because he’s broke, you know?” Alright, look, I know you’re thinking “Why
should I care about the precariat?” Well, you’re probably a part of it! And if you aren’t yet, you probably will be
in the future, and probably not even in the very distant future. So, today we’ll start by taking a look at
the ever-growing obsession with “flexibility” in modern labour, both on the employee’s and
the employer’s sides. Then, we’ll proceed to talk about what’s meant
by precarity and chart the rise of a new sub-class built around this, the precariat. Finally, we’ll proceed into the dramatic effects
that this is having on the wellbeing of precarious workers, both mentally and physically. And, on that note, a quick content warning:
There will be discussion of mental illness again towards the end of this video in the
third section. So, if you are sensitive to this subject,
then you might want to skip part three of this video. So we’re all pretty familiar nowadays with
the Gig Economy of Deliveroo, Uber, etc. But how did we get here? Well, In order to answer that question, we
need to go back to the beginning of the neoliberal period in the mid-to-late 1970s, and examine
the beginning of the modern “flexibility” fetish. Now, you’re probably familiar with this term
from your own job hunt, where flexibility is required on behalf of workers for virtually
every new job position being advertised (at least in Dublin). Conversely, businesses are also presenting
themselves as flexible, a trait which, they suggest, is an unchallengeable virtue. So everyone and everything should be flexible
at all times. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I mean, nobody wants to be cooped up in an
office all day, every day! But where did this idea come from? “Since at least the late 1970s, “flexible
production” has commonly been considered as a positive and necessary innovation to ensure
sustainable economic growth. The need to be “flexible” has been proposed
for workplace technical systems, schedules and salaries, and “flexibility” has even been
recognised as a positive feature of a worker’s personality. Increasing labour flexibility means reducing
the constraints on the movement of workers into and out of jobs previously constrained
by labour laws, union agreements, training systems or labour markets that protect workers’
income and job security. Oh. So, worker “flexibility” is basically synonymous
with the forfeiture of worker’s rights. We get to say goodbye to evenings, weekends,
paid holidays, pensions, sick-leave, the ability to make plans outside of work, job security
and financial stability. Yay! And this was introduced by employers as a
way of sidestepping all of the protections, benefits and entitlements for workers that
labour movements had fought for decades to bring about. This is probably worth keeping in mind the
next time you’re at a job interview where the interviewer is boasting about how “hip”
and “flexible” the company you’re interviewing for is. They really just want to exploit you. When they talk about flexibility, they’re
really just demanding that you sacrifice a whole lot more than the classic proletarian
worker who reliably starts their job at 8 or 9am and finishes at 5pm, Monday to Friday,
who can make plans to see friends and family in the evenings, and go on a weekend getaway
on Saturday and Sunday, who will be entitled to holiday pay, to parental leave, and a whole
range of other non-wage working benefits. I also have to wonder if banks are going to
be “flexible” about giving us mortgages while we’re working flexibly for Uber and Deliveroo,
or with short-term fixed contracts, etc. When my wife and I were applying for a mortgage,
one of the requirements was permanent, full-time contracts. Will this mean that “flexible” workers will
never be able to own their own homes, being forced to rent for their whole lives instead? In Ireland, where we’re currently in the middle
of a brutal national housing crisis with steadily skyrocketing rental prices, this is a huge
problem, especially because paying for a mortgage is generally just a fraction of the cost of
paying rent in Dublin city. But at least we’ll have COOL, FLEXIBLE jobs
when we’re priced out of the rental market, unable to get a home because we can’t get
a mortgage, and eventually end up homeless. So, there’s that, I suppose. COOL! Now, the result of the aforementioned “flexibility”
fetish of capitalism’s neoliberal period is the massive increase in precarious work that
we see today. But, before we go any further, perhaps we
could use a more comprehensive definition of what precarious work is and who precarious
workers are. According to labourrights.org:
“Precarious workers are those who fill permanent job needs but are denied permanent employee
rights. Globally, these workers are subject to unstable
employment, lower wages and more dangerous working conditions. They rarely receive social benefits and are
often denied the right to join a union. Even when they have the right to unionize,
workers are scared to organize if they know they are easily replaceable. Women, minorities and migrant workers are
much more likely to fill these kinds of jobs. Permanent employment across a number of sectors
has shifted to precarious jobs through outsourcing, use of employment agencies, and inappropriate
classification of workers as “short-term” or “independent contractors.”” With the rise of more and more people falling
into this category of “precarious worker”, we’ve seen the birth of what Guy Standing
calls “The Precariat”. Standing argues that this is a whole new social
class below the traditional proletariat. However, this is a problematic classification
because traditionally the proletariat has always been extremely precarious anyway, though
perhaps less so since the significant advancements in worker’s rights and protections over the
course of the twentieth century. Others have questioned whether or not this
actually is a class in itself, rather than just a condition (precariousness/precarity)
which affects people of different social classes. I would argue that it is more appropriate
to suggest that the precariat is simply a rolling back of worker’s rights to earlier
proletarian conditions. We might, however, suggest that the precariat
is a new sub-class within the traditional proletariat, if only for the sake of keeping
this term in order to highlight a problem that is growing in modern society, and which
clearly deserves significant attention. But why does this deserve so much attention? What are the problems here? Am I just complaining as usual? Well, yeah, kind of, but this is a real and
growing problem. As I mentioned in the previous section, it’s
extremely difficult for the precariat to buy property due to unstable employment and the
lack of permanent full-time contracts which are necessary in order to get mortgages to
buy a house. Now, only being able to rent might be somewhat
inconvenient for people in their 20s and 30s, maybe a bit of a nuisance. But what’s going happen ten or twenty years
from now if those same precarious workers decide that they would like to have children? Well, the precariat will have been spending
all of their money on ever-increasing rent, so they’ll have little or no savings to take
care of their children with. And in an age of mass-privatisation, this’ll
have dire implications in terms of healthcare, education, and quality of life of the family
more generally. The implications on the transferral of intergenerational
wealth are also significant as precariously employed parents won’t have property to pass
on to their children, and this is going to lead to further downward social mobility. Even assuming members of the precariat don’t
decide to have children, how are they going to pay for their own medical bills as they
age and become more prone to health difficulties? Let’s just be honest, working as a Deliveroo
cyclist would be pretty difficult for a person in their 80s. And, on that note, by the way, retirement? Forget about it. Never gonna happen. There are no pensions, no savings, and no
prospects of it whatsoever for precarious workers. On top of this, the precariat also has little
to no political representation, and they don’t generally identify themselves with the traditional
working class. Their precarious work leaves them very little
time to unionize or otherwise organize, and so without this organization their socio-economic
conditions are going to continue to get worse and worse. On top of the socio-economic problems which
are inevitably encountered by the precariat’s work in the gig economy, with zero hour contracts,
with short-term fixed contracts, etc., there are also serious adverse health effects, both
physical and mental, which result from precarious work. Benach and co. in 2014 noted that “Precarious
employment is now considered a social determinant of health and an employment condition affecting
the health of workers, families, and communities”. Aside from obvious work-related hazards like
cycling on busy streets to deliver food whilst under time pressure, precarious employment
is also linked to increased use of health servies, worse self-reported health, increased
morbidity, and an increase in cardiovascular risk factors, including BMI, blood pressure,
total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol. There is also evidence for increased mortality
from external causes (particularly tobacco and alcohol-related), as workers turn to drugs
(both, legal and illegal) in order to help them cope with their precarious circumstances. So things aren’t looking too good on the physical
side. But now to move onto the mental health side
– what Guy Standing calls “The Precariatized Mind”. I would like to get started with a passage
from Capitalist Realism describing the experience of precarious work:
“Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic,
broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured,
so are nervous systems. To function effectively as a component of
just-in-time production, you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events,
you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or “precarity”, as the ugly neologism
has it. Periods of work alternate with periods of
unemployment. Typically, you find yourself employed in a
series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.” The result of which is a skyrocketing sense
of existential dread, anxiety, stress, depression, and alienation. And this theoretical rambling actually is
scientifically backed up, with research demonstrating that precarious workers experience adverse
effects on their psychological health, including anxiety, burnout, psychological distress,
poor mental health, and even suicide. Precarious workers demonstrate an increased
prevalence of depressive symptoms, minor psychiatric morbidity, and higher rates of generalized
anxiety disorder. And they also have a higher probability of
reporting fatigue or exhaustion, and are at a greater risk of antidepressant use (which
will, of course, have its own side-effects). So, as we can see, things really don’t look
so good for the precariat in terms of their physical or their mental health. Well, I’m not going to lie, the situation
for the precariat and the gig economy with which they are most commonly associated looks
bleak. And as we move further into a privatised future,
we can expect that more and more of us are going to be joining this group. As for solutions to this growing problem,
Guy Standing proposes Universal Basic Income, though in our current global economic context,
I fail to see how that won’t make the situation even worse. If every person in a free market capitalist
country without strict price controls is given an extra 500 euro or dollars per month, surely
capitalist landlords will realise that they can just raise their rental prices by 500
euro and then we’re right back to square one. This could also weaken minimum wages, destroy
welfare states, reduce workers’ bargaining power, and lead to any number of other unintended
negative consequences. So what do I suggest? Oh, just little things, you know? Small, incremental things that we can do to
help make life better for everyone, like seizing the means of production, overthrowing capitalism,
etc. etc. Just little things, you know? Hey, capitalism’s destroying us, so it wouldn’t
be the worst thing in the world if we decided to try and fight back and destroy it. Just saying. Just a suggestion. Don’t kill me. I’ll be back in a week or two to talk about
“kidults”. Don’t worry, I’m not attacking them. I basically am one. But there is a socio-economic explanation
for their rise in popularity in recent times and we’re going to be exploring that in the
next video. Until next time, folks, take care. Love and solidarity to everyone.




Comments
  1. Nice video! I’ve had few jobs in my life that we’re not flexible. It’s definitely very stressful. And yet I think I prefer it to minimum wage 9-5 jobs here in America. Those jobs often create the illusion of security but in reality one is just as replaceable. Employers often hire a ton of “part time” workers then schedule everyone just under the amount that would qualify them for benefits. 9-5 easily becomes 8-6, or more counting a commute. It’s a damn shame.

  2. Audio is great! I like that you recognise the precariat as a subgroup of proletarians, rather than a seperate class in themselves. I tire of liberal commentators behaving as if this is either a new phenomenon or one seperated from the broader working class historically. When people say "precariat" I think of what Marx wrote about the proletarian in his day, your assessment is right in that it is just a reversal, there's little new about it bar the technological (apps and smartphones) and structural methods (evading labour laws rather than just not having them) used to put us back in that position. I also like that you go into the health effects of it, there's little more convincing than "capitalism is killing you faster".

  3. Although traditional employment devours most individuals' lives, at least structure allows for our brain to have a strict divide between work and life– well the little remaining life that we may have…

  4. If the only job available to me were a 9-5 I would literally just give up and live on the streets. It's intolerable to me.

  5. MAN you really nailed with this video. My most sincere appraisal. I am a student and a precariat and this video has opened my eyes.

  6. I liked this video you got a new subscriber but one small thing the text explaining Precarity maybe should be a smaller font and stationary so that you can pause and read it instead of reading it then have to go back to listen to what you say. Otherwise great video and I will be looking forward of more from sweden with care.

  7. For the first time, I'm actually happy with my potential job prospects. I hate my current job but I'm almost done with my bachelor's in mechanical engineering and I'm currently working on a project for school that should get me a job in a field that's exploding right now. At the same time, so much of everything is becoming automated (including engineering) that I still don't think it's guaranteed to be a career I could have until I die…

  8. Absolutely incredible video. Living in Ireland myself everything that you're saying just really hits close. I used to work in KFC but got fired when I developed epilepsy. I was too much of a risk apparently but honestly it feels like your just disposable. It's similar to what you said about about mental illness in your previous video, for every job I have to say that I have epilepsy which makes to harder to work and I can't get a driver's licence either so it has to be close by. It's crazy that something you have no-control over can limit so many job options for you and there's nothing in place to help you. Luckily I still lively primarily with my parents but if I also had to make rent I would have been completely screwed.

  9. Hey, I really enjoy your videos and you’re helping me get my head around all of this stuff – precarity and mental health – which are current issues for me.

    I’d like to discuss something that links this video and your previous video on ‘Mental Health, Modern Society, and Individualisation’.

    It’s about the slightly different way you’ve couched ‘flexibility’ and ‘stability’ in these two videos.

    In the mental health video, workplace flexibility is viewed as positive to allow you to achieve some of your self-actualisation, whereas in Gig Economy video, the struggle by unions and workers for stability (stable conditions, 9 – 5, weekends, etc.) is viewed as positive (and the flip-side: mental health video shows stability as negative, but the gig economy video shows flexibility as negative). You clearly already put a lot of other context around this and made excellent points, but it would seem detractors could say ‘geez, he really wants flexibility AND stability!? He’s dreamin!’ I don’t think there was any real attempt to address this perceived inconsistency apart from presenting the alternative example of a co-op in the mental health video.

    It’s this example that I’d like to discuss further. I think for many people, it’s not evidently clear how a co-op situation would in any way reduce precarity, or if there was an economy of co-ops, or full socialism/anarchism, how this would remove the coercive aspect of ‘having to participate in order to live’. In any economic system, is there not going to be some aspect of perceived coercion if you have to participate in order to survive? Of course, I agree that being ‘coerced’ for survival’s sake to participate in a single co-op is not necessarily a particularly scary thing (unless you have social anxiety disorder, like I do, then it actually sounds a bit like torture), but it’s not so clear if that would still hold in a fully socialist, anarchist economy/society. If my existence depended upon being able to fluidly and comfortably create social relations in order to be a part of a socially oriented economic system, I imagine I would find that quite precarious, though maybe less precarious than the current one? Even though I agree philosophically with left/anarchist ideas, practically it scares the shit out of my socially anxious brain patterns and I literally couldn't think of anything worse than having to consistently be around people to negotiate all of our shared lives …ugh! That situation could potentially feel or actually be coercive, no?
    …but then no person is an island and all of that negotiating is currently palmed off to wealthy pricks mostly in private…

    I get that trying to imagine a post-capitalist society is really difficult, so I know you couldn’t spend an hour in that video giving a detailed description of how a post-capitalist society could accommodate all the different types of possible mental health situations.

    Anyway, wondering what others' thoughts are and how you all see it?

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