Precarious 30ies

Here we are again at 3 in the morning, Copenhagen.

A couple of days ago, my colleague Ester Barinaga invited me to participate as an “expert” to a panel discussion on the precariat. She runs a excellent course on Social Entrepreneurship on the MSc on Entrepreneurship and Innovation (OIE) at CBS. The students were supposed to give a 3 minute pitch on possible ventures tackling the problem of precariat in the different forms presented by Guy Standing in his recent book: migrant, industrial and highly educated precariat.

I would be a representative of the highly educated, and, as it has been almost immediately pointed out, I am a “luxury” precarious. The reason being that even though I don’t know where I will land in one year, I am “only” 30, I have a PhD, solid brands on my CV and a good salary. The educated precariat is a group constituted by those who have an university degree or higher but find employment only as freelance or through short term contracts. In short, these people face an ever volatile work environment resulting from disruptions brought about by the Internet and the global financial crisis. According to Standing most modern jobs are primarily salary based, but have been deprived of non-monetary benefits that once used to be the norm. Further, precariat as a condition is much larger than work – it encompasses issues that span from financial planning, mobility, motivation, private relationships, and emotional stability. Some of my friends who have long-term contracts are still living in precarious conditions because they do not make enough money to be able to get a mortgage nor feel safe to plan to have a baby. This is particularly relevant for big Italian cities, like Milan, where people work long hours for generally low salaries compared to same positions in other big European cities, while prices (and rents) remain pretty high. Because of the precarious condition a whole generation lives with the inability of planning for its own future… and while some men may suffer from this too, this is hitting young women especially hard, as they are the ones who have to measure their choices with their declining fertility.

While preparing myself for the workshop I have been reaching out to friends and acquaintances – most of my peers from generation Y – who live in different aspects of the precariat. These people have always been in this work condition, so they don’t necessarily know that they are precarious. The topic is highly complex and would require much longer analysis and thought from my part. However, I want to share some insights that  emerged from these conversations and from the panel discussion with the students, even though they don’t necessarily make the puzzle easier to solve.

  1. Several people who have a precarious job would not trade their position for a stable one with secure benefits and paycheck because this would mean for them to do something they don’t like – i.e. working at the post office instead of being a screenwriter. Similarly, some people with very highly paid finance or corporate jobs decide to quit because they want to engage in more dynamic activities, instead of performing predictable tasks. To be clear, these are mostly men without family/stable relationships. It is safe to say that this cohort is not to be considered precarious because they are not suffering from this situation, but  by accepting several aspect of the precariat, they contribute to its endurance. Also this makes it more difficult to clearly define the boundaries of precarious jobs and design appropriate policies accordingly.
  2. The precariat deepens the divide across generations. Speciafically between millennials (people in their mid 20s and 30s) and older people from generation X (late baby boomers). First, people who are not precarious often do not understand what it means to be in this condition so they are not always able to help. On the other hand, people in precarious jobs often see their older colleagues with stable jobs as less qualified and more privileged, which creates stress and strive within organizations. Second, several young people end up relying on their parents/families in order to maintain the lifestyle they have been raised on, or sometimes just to be able to make a living. This creates frustration. As a result, some members of the precariat see inheritance as a light at the end of the tunnel, but are also concerned by the ethic issues that come with it.
  3. The OIE pitches were quite promising – students generally presented ventures of various kind: intermediaries that would facilitate the access to the job market for students and refugees; event organizers aiming to increase the interaction among precarious workers; providers of platforms for freelancers to share office space and other resources etc…the most interesting ideas however focused on a) education; b) communication – especially across the different categories of precariat.

Education:  The panel discussion highlighted the problem of skills. There is an increasing gap between graduate education and workplace requirements. Some of it is due to the fast-changing technology and need to continuously update the training of employees. On the other hand, most students choose university without a clear idea of the range of jobs they will be able to access with their degree or have only vague ideas about what the job they are training for is going to be like on a daily basis.

Communication: A problem related to the precariat is the lack of interaction across precarious groups. Different categories of precarious are relegated to their own “bubble”; as they have different lifestyles, different needs, they seldom get in contact with each other, often vote for different political groups. A further challenge is that people who are precarious may not be aware of it. When students enter the job market they are not always well informed on what they should be expecting from their employer. Recent graduates increasingly accept to work as interns for free. They are promised to be rewarded with “experience” but this is not a sure deal and they may end up with quite flat learning curves.

More on the topic in this recent piece.