Precarius

In the original Latin, the word was related to favor. Either to depend on favor, or to be given as a favor. It’s a term I’ve heard all my adult life—in Portugal, and assuredly elsewhere, it has a clear connotation with employment—there’s even an NGO by that name.

The end of precarious labor is one of the banners of the left—the fight for permanence, where a job has continuity, and a worker can plan a life based on a steady income stream.

In the developed world, this ‘jobs for life’ model ended with the baby boomers—the very early baby boomers, at that. Post-austerity in Southern Europe, it became obvious that the pension model was similarly dead.

There’s a certain irony here, because jobs for life are what we have now—a nuanced version where retirement age steadily increases, and you work until you’re physically unable to carry on. In both halves of the hourglass, but particularly in the McDonald’s half, you shift (excuse the pun) into each new ‘job’ until you keel over.

For John and Jane, the golden handshake (or watch), the golf links, the Martini-modulated retirement plan, are a bygone. Current baby boomers and millennials are under no illusion: precarious is the new normal.

A recent study in the U.K. entitled ‘thriving, striving, or just about surviving’, reports that seventy percent of the country’s population is practically broke. Forty percent of the two thousand people interviewed stated their finances were ‘permanently precarious’, and the lowest thirty percent claimed they were ‘not managing to get by’—a British euphemism for being broke.

The lie of the land. Jobs in the United Kingdom, analyzed by the Royal Society of Arts.

The Royal Society of Arts commissioned this research, and the report identifies a wholly new class structure. In this brave new world, there are seven classes, in ascending order.

The chronically precarious: the reliably broke, people in this group are typically on a steady contract albeit with low pay. 60% have less than £1,000 saved and they have low job satisfaction and little autonomy at work. Typical job: full-time sales assistant.

The acutely precarious: usually broke but with significant income “yoyo-ing”. Work is often low-paid but, unlike the chronically precarious, irregular. This is a young group and 45% have a degree. Typical job: zero-hours hospitality.

The flexi-workers: love their job, even if it doesn’t pay well: 83% are satisfied at work but 59% earn less than £21,000 a year. High levels of savings: many are redundant “second careerers”. They value autonomy above security. Typical job: freelance photographer.

The steady-staters: feel well treated (90%) and well paid (69%), even if work is a means to an end. But they have low savings, and rely on work for income so are vulnerable to a shock. Their routine jobs are at high risk of automation. Typical job: public sector administrator.

The idealists: mid-earning, passionate and often millennials (50% under 35), 70% think they make a positive contribution to society at work. They are most likely to rely on others, such as parents, for income. They are urbane and 25% have more than £10,000 saved. Typical job: charity employee.

The strivers: these have regular jobs with high income and high savings, but worry the link between hard work and fair pay has broken: 73% are stressed but only 20% think their pay reflects their efforts. Typical job: middle manager.

The high-flyers: the wealthiest group: 55% have more than £10,000 in savings. They are successful at adapting to automation, and the most likely group to value new technology. They report high job security, high autonomy and high fulfilment. Typical job: director of an IT services business.

This distribution is heart-rending. Forty-three percent of the total have no safety net—if they lose their job, have an accident, or fall prey to the many other tricks life plays on us, no one in their household is able to support them.

I’ve been in England all weekend, talking to people who voted enthusiastically for Brexit, listening to the same people moaning about the government, and eating and drinking in establishments where the staff have no idea of the meaning of good service.

I also had the opportunity to examine one National Health Service (NHS) facility at close quarters, and I was impressed—in a good way. The hospital I visited was full of dedicated staff, of which the vast majority were foreigners: Indians from Kerala, Greeks, Spaniards, East Europeans.

I was struck by the friendly and competent nurses, the cleanliness, the quality of the wards—everything impressed me. I saw empty corridors, not gurney-ridden walls of patients waiting for treatment. I guess that may happen in some places, but it didn’t happen here.

I saw that much of the work was executed by immigrants, who definitely fall into some of the more challenging classes above. I guess the Indians will stay on after the Europeans go, but I can tell you they will be missed.

Work like this is not a job, it’s a calling. I searched through the RSA report for data on immigrants. The word pops up only once. I wonder how many of those two thousand people are not UK nationals, and I think I know the answer—very few.

So here’s the thing. The UK is no different from a bunch of other countries. So take a selfie. Where do you fit in?

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

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