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The Brave New World of Work - Precarious Work, Insecure Workers

FrenchDoc's picture

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

This session by ASA President Arne Kalleberg (website) deserves a post of its own, because I thought it was so good and important. The title says it all: when it comes to the meaning of work, socio-economic forces have made work more insecure, unpredictable, and risky. In other words, in the brave new world of work, the French concept of précarité is the name of the game: work has become more precarious.

Kalleberg divided his presentation into four sections:

  • The causes of growth of precarious work as global challenge
  • The consequences
  • Rethinking the employment relationship
  • Challenges for public policy and sociology

There are some macro changes - political, social, economic, cultural - that explain the growth of precarious work (most of these are already well-known):

  • Technology
  • Legal changes
  • Decline of unions
  • Rise of global competition
  • Reagan
  • Deregulation
  • Ideological changes
  • Rise of yoyo society ("You're on your own")

All these macro factors have contributed to a major push for more flexibility that employers and government/state have enthusiastically embraced. Précarité is the end result of all these processes.

Kalleberg puts this in the larger historical context of labor relations and especially in the context of Karl Polanyi's delineation of the double movement in The Great Transformation. Kalleberg characterizes this double movement as the alternating dynamic of flexibility and security.

In general terms, the period between the 1800s up until the 1930s was characterized by the dynamics of flexibility (with national differences, of course). The period between the late 1930s up until 1975 was marked by the development of the strong social contract and an era of relative security in employment and employment relationships (with institutional support).

Since 1975, the pendulum has swung back to the flexibility dynamics with the progressive dismantling of labor protection in the name of increased competitiveness and global markets. This has occurred concurrently with deindustrialization and the corresponding mass layoffs (with the blessings of the Reagan administration, always cheering on the collapse of unions) and the rise of the service economy and consumers / producers coalitions.

Asa result of all that, the distinction between the primary and secondary labor markets progressively disappears (the former being characterized by stability of employment, security and benefits, the latter characterized by precarious work, traditionally the province of women workers). Secondary labor market conditions spread across the board. Academia, of course, is a good example of that with the enormous increase in the use of adjunct faculties, easy to hire and fire, no tenure and a few benefits if they are lucky as well as full-time non-tenured positions; this occurs at the same time as the decline in full-time tenured positions.

Layoffs, that used to be the hallmark of bad economic times. They have now become the normal practice as part of downsizing strategies (tied to the focus on stock prices... see my other ASA post on that). We also see that in the shift from pensions based on defined benefits to defined contributions.

This is something well detailed and described in books such as Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift and Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American. Both great reads, by the way.

The objective consequences of all this are well-known:

  • Economic insecurity, job insecurity, the dismantling of the concept of careers
  • Individual outcomes in terms of health and stress, all well described by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character.
  • Family outcomes in terms of high rates of dissolution (the fastest growing "family form" are unmarried singles, the breadwinner/housewife model is no longer the norm... go read Stephanie Coontz's Marriage: A History on this, best book on family ever). Also the fact that of increased college debt has become a family issue in times of economic insecurity, increased necessity of college degrees and economic insecurity for parents and students as future workers.
  • Community outcomes in terms of loss of social capital, trust, as well as community instability as people move in and out of communities much more frequently (layoffs and foreclosures certainly contribute to that aspect of things).

All these trends are experienced more harshly by older and minority workers.

All these dynamics have also contributed to the deconstruction / reconstruction of the employment relations, organizational context and managerial regimes whereby the firm becomes a network of different types of contracts.

These trends are not limited to the United States, of course; they are global and they have been aptly described by both Ulrich Beck and The World Risk Society as well as Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Times and The Individualized Society. Some countries have tried to establish a hybrid system such as the Danish flexicurity, where job security is low but security is high employment security through generous benefits of all types (income compensation, education, job training).

So, as Kalleberg concludes, hopefully, the pendulum is now swinging back toward the security pole after more than 30 years of flexibilization of the labor markets. This can be seen in the alter-globalization movement and the trend to increase union solidarity on a global scale. Tall order though as the institutional conditions are definitely tipped in favor of transnational corporations. However, there have been clear signs of challenges to the Washington consensus even from within institutions such as the IMF.

There is now a strong need for social insurance (in the broad sense of health, protection against income volatility, pension and education).

There is still definitely a need for government to play a major role in counterbalancing la précarité for the promotion of the collective good rather than leaving it up to individuals to figure out how to survive in corrosive conditions.

As for sociology, Kalleberg calls for a unified sociology of work, occupations and organizations and not just the old-fashioned industrial sociology (which is on the decline anyway), and certainly not the narrow-focused economic sociology (on the rise) that tends to neglect workers. Issues of work, occupations and organizations tend to be diluted into other topics (race, gender, social inequalities, to name only a few) at the expense of the big picture on this specific topic.

The ASA can be proud this man was our president. What a great session.

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chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i'm quite pessimistic about reversing those trends here in this country, tho. seems to me that Reagan did a whole lot more than bust the unions; by destroying public education of quality in this country, he guaranteed that a whole generation of consumers (who are more that than 'citizens') have no idea how to tackle the problems you mention, nor the histories in which similar problems were addressed by a demanding populace. consumerism is a Great Evil in my book for many reason, not the least of which is that it makes people dependent and lazy.

it won't be this generation of pols to fix these problems, and indeed, i'm convinced that the last 8 years have bought us a depression that will be lasting and deep. but out of those ashes will come those who understand that there must be a different way than "the new world order" of insecurity and it cannot be based upon the environmentally destructive, socially destabilizing, favoring of the uberwealthy and unaccountable, petrochemical-based global economy.

i'm very glad of the work we're finally doing here, getting folks to focus on the local. that's an important first step, imho, and most because it's about the only way most of us will come out of the coming upheaval with our skins, homes and sanity.