Recently, I had the chance to interview Guy Standing, a former director at the ILO and current professor of economic security at the University of Bath. He's a global authority on precarious work and the impact from neoliberal policies on labour markets. Earlier this year Professor Standing published The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class which traces the emergence of the global precariat and what needs to be done to address the needs of this group. This is a very timely interview given the deep contradictions that are becoming apparent with capitalism and the development of widespread opposition by young people to economic and social injustice through phenomena like Occupy Wall Street in North America, the indignados in Spain and the London riots. The substance of the interview focuses on the deterioration of the economic prospects of young people and how youth form the vanguard of the precariat. The interview appears below:
Q: You've argued that the precariat is a class in development. Can you briefly explain the emergence of the precariat?
A: It is a class-in-the-making, not yet a class-for-itself. What this means, in brief, is that it consists of a growing number of people, in millions, who are experiencing a similar set of experiences – insecurity, providing what is called flexible, precarious labour without any secure rights or having a sense of occupational identity – without yet realising a common sense of collective interest in overcoming the insecurity around a common vision of what sort of Good Society they would want to see replacing the current circumstances.
Q: During the era of neoliberalism there has been a commodification of education, a retrenchment of the social welfare state and a general absence of effective ameliorative strategies that enhance the position of young people in labour markets. Overall, has there been a strategic abandonment of young people on the part of governments as a result of neoliberal policy?
A: There has been a general abandonment of the need for social and economic security for ordinary people. The vast majority of us, as human beings, want and need basic security. Without it, we are at risk of impoverishment, and as a result we can easily lose our sense of empathy with other people. The commodification of education in those circumstances has given young people a false message. The view has been that if young people improve their “human capital”, they will gain higher incomes and have access to a fantastic career. But this is a false prospectus, if the market system is merely generating a small number of big winners alongside a growing number of jobs for the precariat. All the human capital agenda is doing is mass producing graduates with pieces of paper called degrees or diplomas, at horrifying cost in terms of payments made and debts incurred. There is an education bubble about to break. It will make the sub-prime housing bubble seem just one of several to hit our economies. Student debt in the United States has multiplied sevenfold in the past decade and is likely to continue to rise. Abandonment? You can say so.
Q: One of poignant arguments you've made is that the development of the precariat is associated with a lack of social memory, no reciprocity and no shadow of the future. What do you feel are the impacts stemming from the rise of the precariatized mind on the psychology of the current generation of young people?
A: The precariatised mind – and precariousness in general – creates fear and loss of hope. Youth who lose hope may easily lose interest in the political process, which would be wrong. We need to struggle for a much better type of society. Disengagement might be understandable, but it is the worst scenario. We must forge a new form of political engagement. This is one of the main messages the book tries to provide. Youth has always led society with its imagination and energy. If we want a better ecology, less inequality and a revival of the commons, youth must revive a conscious commitment to social and political action.
Q: There appears to be a compelling narrative between labour market flexibility (e.g. wage system, functional and numerical), intergenerational equity and the deteriorating prospects for young people. Are young people facing a poverty trap in advanced economies?
A: They face a huge poverty trap, combined with what the book calls a precarity trap. Young people on the edge of the labour market face what is in effect much, much higher marginal tax rates than people in the salariat or the elite would regard as tolerable. Youth should take the trouble to learn why that is happening and how it is happening.
Q: Over the past ten months there has been a lot of social unrest from youth (e.g. the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, anti-austerity riots in Greece, the London riots). Do you see a long-term movement emerging from these events that could bring about new redistributive strategies?
A: Yes and no. It is up to us all, young and old. The events of this year have been wonderful and they have been promising. They have been the actions of primitive rebels, which means they have brought together many people who see what they are against. But there is not yet a common vision of what is needed. That is the next stage. Those participating in the events this year must develop a coherent, feasible strategy and engage politically to put it into practice.
Q: What sort of redistributive strategies do you propose for addressing the social and economic inequities that presently exist?
A: As I argue in the book, and as our network BIEN has been arguing, the first policy we should struggle to understand and to achieve is a basic income. We need to ensure that everybody in society has basic economic security as a human right. I urge your readers to look up the BIEN website and to join us as lifetime members. You will find that we are beginning to have real success in some unlikely places in the world. We need to make sure that translates into success inside the United States as well. It would not be a panacea. However, it must be an integral part of a redistributive strategy, as long as it was combined with other institutional changes and a revival of collective action. To be young is to have no baggage. In other words, it is the time of life to reject despair and cynicism. Join us. The journey is part of the fun. And being on it lifts the spirit and the chin.