Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Precariat

Following on from CU's post of yesterday: it all loops back into the Paul Mason theme we've discussed before, of whether the current dynamics of capitalism are leading to his much longed-for revolution.

I have been a gig economy player 100% for nearly 15 years (and Mrs D likewise), with the important qualification that we had some (earned) capital behind us at the point I ceased being an employee, so - even though there were still some years of mortgage / school / university fees to be covered - we couldn't be classed as 'precariat', which is the other new coinage often used in this context.

The inherent uncertainties of 'gig' are unnerving for anyone who likes a bit of stability or opportunity to plan ahead more than 3 months; and - let's be honest - I really don't know how comfortable we would have felt in that mode 10 years earlier with a young family and no capital cushion.  However, I started my commercial career when 'everyone' went into job-for-life, final-salary style of employment, which can seriously dull the entrepreneurial / self-reliance instincts. (Being in the army before that was *even worse* - you don't even need to consider where the next meal is coming from, you just place your arse on a chair in front of a table.)

The big change seemed to come in the early '90s.  I well recall the 20-something kids I was managing then, who had grown up in families where the (middle class) breadwinner suddenly lost their job during the various waves of Thatcher-era disruption.  These youngsters were much more tolerant of uncertainty than I would have been at their age; their personal career-planning and forward-looking ambition was non-existent as I would have understood it, & psychologically they seemed always prepared for some axe to fall randomly on whatever they were doing at the time.  A different approach to life, which seems to work out broadly OK for many.  But gigging precariously may not be quite so easy when body and mind start to slow up in late middle age.  And we haven't yet seen what happens when these generations reach retirement with bugger-all pension provision.

The debate takes one of two turns at this point, both taking their cue from one or other of the great 19th century German thinkers.  On the hand, Marx (or rather, latter-day marxists like Mason who try to adapt Marx's proletariat-based thinking) would be inclined to see this trend as (a) an inevitable outworking of late-stage capitalism and (b) creating the 'alienation' and despair that trigger the revolution.  We see plenty of leftwing hopes pinned on this, even though (as Mason is periodically forced to admit) every apparent new dawn of the past decade has rapidly clouded over for them.

On the other, Nietzsche relished the idea of more bracing times ahead, where constant turmoil and strife would bring out the best in the toughest and most flexible individuals.  (His academic background was of course in Homer.)   In less dramatic terms, the far less certain employment conditions in the US economy have for a very long time bred a different attitude to life in many sectors of American society, from that of the stability-craving post-war European model.

I'll end by quoting a passage that captures this approach very neatly - and its flipside:
The advocates of the neo-liberalism suggest that is how it should be. Their vision is of a world of restless freelancers living off their wits project-to-project. The post-modern career is self-assembled. Skills and jobs don't last long and so unlike their grandparents, Gen Y can't rely on solid Fordist guarantees. Instead they must dance on hot coals, reinventing themselves towards emerging labour markets, prostituting their ambitions. To fulfil the new economy fantasy they must become the entrepreneurial, "frictionless" workers, mobile and free from the ballast of personal ties. This might suit the youthful graphic designer or the hipster running a digital start-up, but ...
But, continues the writer, this rarely suits a certain category of people for whom regular employment "provides an exoskeleton protecting them from the ravages of the market".  This could, I suggest, be quite a large percentage of our fellow citizens.  (Of course, the dole plays a similar 'protective' role.)

Marx or Nietzsche?  They both offered pretty apocalyptic visions that are equally out of fashion in polite society.  The 20th century didn't quite bear either of them out, though from time to time both camps could claim to see the developments in society they were expecting.  And the 21st ... who knows?    Wars, and rumours of wars ...

ND

20 comments:

Steven_L said...

Being in the army before that was *even worse* - you don't even need to consider where the next meal is coming from, you just place your arse on a chair in front of a table.

And being married?

CityUnslicker said...

in my early career I was (am!) a full time employee. Nontheless the early naughties saw to it that I faced redundancy 9 years on the trot at various companies.

Corporate life is still bracing in the modern world. Only the public sector remains steady and that is at a personal cost for those in it (tough jobs and few tools to do it).

Should we be envious of the Chinese though, with their glittering factories and endless job creation; they still view our paradigm as far superior to their own experiences.

Professor Pizzle said...

I grew up in the North in an environment where success was quantified on getting a 'good' job, ie. Bank, credit card company, insurance, ICI, mining, oil rig manufacture, engineering.

My parents despaired when I became a freelance art and techy type.

Almost all the 'safe' jobs there are gone now. As are most of the 'safe' jobs that replaced them.

The left's vision of providing jobs isn't just wrong, it's insane.

If I had a teenage child right now I would be telling them to avoid the ultra-safe teaching, medicine (as a doctor*) and legal occupations. They are going to be massively disrupted by technology in the coming 20 years.

* Nursing will be fine. A growth area even.

andrew said...

ND

The other thing you probably had when starting your 'gigging' career was house with a (relative to today) small mortgage.

The conditions you describe - like you say - are not conductive to raising the next generation of taxpayers.
As such I think you will see the state start to push back against this lifestyle.

Jan said...

Success to my mother was/is a steady job WITH A PENSION. The last bit is crucial. Needless to say I was a disappointment to her. She still goes on about it to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren with regards to their employment options.

Nick Drew said...

And being married? - How long have you got, Steven ..?

the Chinese though, with their glittering factories and endless job creation; they still view our paradigm as far superior to their own experiences - I never cease to marvel at how the Chinese think we are still the source of all wisdom on so many matters [that's practical Chinese business types, not the official organs of the CP, obviously]

Prof, you have spoken wisely

you probably had when starting your 'gigging' career ... house with a (relative to today) small mortgage - yes Andrew, it's absolutely true, I would say (from memory) it was paid down to about 1 x salary (i.e. the last salary i was on before quitting)

I was a disappointment to her - I find that hard to believe, Jan!

Blue Eyes said...

SL what a sexist comment!

Dick the Prick said...

@CU "Only the public sector remains steady and that is at a personal cost for those in it (tough jobs and few tools to do it)"

I'm just about to resign from NHS England, done it for 4 years and a bigger dogs' breakfast I can't imagine the Chinese could invent. Not only are public sector jobs breeding grounds for indolence but I swear to God, the culture of whistle-blowing is one of the most fucked up things i've ever encountered - makes Kafka look like a kiddies' entertainer.

Sure, the jobs are steady but there's passive institutionalisation whereby if you find yourself in the wrong department at the wrong time - you're out and, depending how long you've been there, you're fit for fuck all.

Am gonna reboot my qualifications and take some time off and get gigging for a bit - I wanna try sales, been a financial analyst for so long now I am thoroughly bored shitless.

Steven_L said...

You don't generally need any qualifications for sales, unless you are selling 'regulated' products that is. Anyway, all the real money appears to be in selling 'unregulated' stuff like plots of greenbelt, plots of foreign wasteland, carbon credits, raw earth mineral oxides, bottles of wine, bottles of whisky and of course dodgy pension schemes.

In fact why not cut out the middle men and set up your own pension scheme? You don't need any FCA authorisation to set up an occupational pension scheme. Any limited company can have one, whether it has any employees or not. In fact it doesn't even need to be trading. And it can open its occupational pension scheme to every Tom, Dick and Harry, perfectly legally so the Pensions Regulator tells me. Set up a different company to offer a pensions tracing service too to make your phone calls from and generate your leads too.

Then all you have to do is sell the benefits of transferring to it. Phoning folk and offering a cash bank incentive and a juicy fixed rate return is usually enough to get a few middle aged down and outs hooked. Five hundred quid in beer vouchers and 6% per annum should do the trick. Send one of those document couriers around with a load of forms to sign and hey presto!

You just need some 6% bonds for them to invest in. Probably best to set up another limited company and issue them yourself. And make sure all three companies they are in different Police jurisdictions so nobody claims ownership, or to bog down any coppers who haven't given up trying in bureaucracy.

And if the Pensions Regulator / Police / local council etc ask you who made the phone calls just say you don't know. That'll be enough to throw them off the scent. Oh, you'll need an actual authorised IFA to prepared some advice for your investors, explaining in a dozen pages of jargon they won't understand that the transfer isn't a wise idea. That way the FCA won't accuse you of engaging in a regulated activity without authorisation. But there's plenty of IFA will do this for less than a grand, you might even find one who conveniently forgets to put the advice in the post.

You'll be a millionaire this time next year. And it's all perfectly legal (judging by the inaction of the Police / Pensions Regulator / FCA)

andrew said...

SL

Oddly enough back in '05-'10 I was working with a small group that was trying to do something v.v. similar
- trust deed in the channel islands
- legals in cyprus
- controlled in malta

All completely above board & legal - although regulatory arbitrage was exploited a lot.
Aimed at the lower end of the HNWs (1-20m liquid assets iirc).
It did not work out, partly due to the crash, partly because of the trust issue - it was a small group.


Steven_L said...

The trust issue that nobody volunteered to front it as 'trustee' or just that you didn't trust each other not to run off with the loot?

dearieme said...

One youngster I know joined the gig economy after a company told him "We want to hire you but we can't because we've got a hiring freeze, so incorporate yourself and we'll give your company a contract."

Blue Eyes said...

What we seem to be getting the impression of here is that it is onerous for firms to hire people properly. I wonder what the government could do to make it less onerous to hire people??!

Electro-Kevin said...

The 'gig economy' is just another way of saying people in the West are getting poorer. I am significantly poorer than my Dad was - my boys are significantly poorer than I was, despite our education getting better by a similar degree generation to generation.

I'd like to build a capital cusion but am helping my lads through university. We've already arranged to by-pass my inheritance directly to them - this is just so they can have a fighting chance of escaping renter serfdom some time in their forties.

Brexit could well make things worse but I always knew that.

The simple fact is that employers don't provide what they used to because they don't have to - so long as there are those willing to work for less.

Unionised workforces ? I think their time is coming to an end too. In my job the strength was never really the union anyway (entry standards are set by the RSSB and not a union rep in sight) but an underestimation of the training needed - to this end the government has been busy building up surplusses in staff but it has taken years to do.

Electro-Kevin said...

(Being in the army is worse...you don't even need to consider where the next meal is coming from, you just place your arse on a chair in front of a table.)

That really made me laugh.

The police section house was similar. People used to take their meals to their bedrooms - then deposit the dirty plates in the lift, which would stay there for weeks, going up and down, because the cleaners did not do lifts.

Wildgoose said...

Professor Pizzle (a fellow Northerner) is right about the coming Technological Disruption to a large section of traditional jobs. I have three teenage children and I have stressed this point to them.

There is a scene in Peter Shaffer's play "Equus" which resonated with me when I read it in my school library, and then again when I eventually saw it on the stage. The two psychologists described the boy's father as "an old school socialist - relentlessly self-improving". Except that wasn't quite right. It should have been "old school working class" - my background - because it was nothing to do with socialism.

And one of the reasons why the traditional aspirant working classes had such attitudes was that they knew just how close real poverty was; it was just a short period of illness, injury or unemployment away. And boy did the 1980s drive that home to those of us living in the North and with families working in the Coal, Steel and Manufacturing sectors.

That is why as Nick put it about the youngsters he was managing: "psychologically they seemed always prepared for some axe to fall randomly on whatever they were doing at the time".

Simple self-preservation.

But given that we have a wave of technological unemployment approaching, who do you think is best prepared for it?

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