The precariat refers to people living and working usually in a series of short-term jobs without recourse to stable occupational identities or careers, social protection or relevant protective legislation.
The variety of jobs the precariat does varies enormously as this can include any type of agency work such as cleaning, or factory work, anyone working on a zero-hours contract doing delivery work for the likes of Amazon or Sports Direct and also technically self-employed ‘gig-economy’ workers such as Uber drivers or anyone working for Deliveroo.
The precariat includes a mixture of local people and migrants and the average age profile of this class is 50, according the Great British Class Survey.
Incomes are usually low for people in the Precariat, and crucially incomes are often not secure, meaning that people can go without work for days, weeks or even months and may have to periodically supplement their (lack of) income with benefits.
This class is also the least likely to own their own homes, the most likely to rent and they have the lowest levels of cultural and social capital.
The term Precariat links its members vulnerability to their structural location in society and the structural instability of a global labour market. It recognises that there is mobility and overcomes the idea of them being fixed outside ot the class system.
The precariat includes benefit claimants, most of whom claim temporarily in between periods of precarious short term work, the kind of work that is increasing rapidly in neoliberal Britain, and increasingly less of a stepping stone to more secure and better paid employment.
Many members of the precariat are caught in a cycle of entrapment: they are unable to find work which is long term enough and with prospects of progression for them to gain skills and progress up the career and income ladder, rather they move from one low-status job to a period of no job and then back into another low-status job.
The Underclass: misleading and derogatory
Charles Murray famously developed the concept of the ‘Underclass’ in the 1980s to designate a group of people beneath the class system and excluded from the social mainstream.
According to Murray the main features of the Underclass were a long-term dependency on benefits which spanned across generations such that younger people were socialised into an anti-work, high-crime and teen-pregnancy culture.
Research in the UK has shown that the existence of the Underclass is a myth, mainly because very few benefits claimants claim benefits long term, most are in either part-time or intermittent employment and claim to top-up their small incomes or short-term between periods of unemployment, so there is no group of people beneath the class system.
However the mainstream media has a long history of perpetuating the myth that there is a ‘dangerous class’ of poor people who are work shy, criminal and abuse the benefits system.
When the Great British Class Survey was conducted, for example, there were a lot of documentaries about benefits claimants such as Benefits Street which reinforced the idea that there was an underclass of lazy, determined welfare spongers.
The Precarait/ (mislabelled) Underclass are also loathed and laughed at by some in other sectors of the population, and we see this most obviously through the derogatory use of the Chav label.
The Precariat are seen as old fashioned, rigid and inflexible, and their ways of being are devalued, with many people believing that foreigners are better at filling low paid jobs in Britain rather than poor lazy British people.
It maybe because of the breaking down of the clear class boundaries between middle and working class that we denigrate the poor with more vigour – as if rallying against the bottom unites the rest of us and shores up our own identity as not one of them.
Culture, Identity and the Precariat
Despite the fact that many of the negative associations are due to right-wing bigotry and media stereotyping, the precariat know they are looked down on and they would rather stay among their own which unfortunately makes it more likely that the Precariat do, indeed, become something of an isolated and segregated class.
Many in the Precariat manage this by close identification with the local and through complicated and voracious notions of belonging which may manifest in what they wear, what they like and strong connection to their local communities.
The Precariat are so painfully aware of the level of social shame associated with their class that only 1% of Great British Class Survey respondents were from the Precariat, besides them making up 15% of the population. They wanted to avoid a process that involved putting them at the bottom.
The precariat have the lowest levels of cultural capital, they have a lot less knowledge about ‘high’ culture especially and would rather NOT go out to public venues to conspicuously consume such cultural products.
Rather they prefer to engage in activities either at home with close friends and families or in their local communities: cultural activities are more about the people less about social display.
Signposting and Sources
This material should be relevant to anyone studying the culture and identity option as part of their A-level in sociology.
This post was summarised from Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.
To find out more about the Precariat you might like to do the Great British Class Survey.
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