The Precariously Employed

- that's you, today or tomorrow - A Search for a New World Order

Thor May
Brisbane, October 2013  


This is a work in progress. Revision and extension is likely. The topic is immense, but immensely important. Ideas and contributions are welcome.







1. From the late 18th Century in Europe leading thinkers became aware that the basic pattern of their societies was changing beyond recognition. The changes related closely to the invention of powered engines and precision engineering, industrialization, the movement of peoples from the country to the city, the spread of education, the Enlightenment and emergence of scientific thinking, and many other factors. Over the following century ideologies such as Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism, neo-Theocracy, elective Democracy, pay-as-you-go-Plutocracy etc gradually became formed into political movements and shaped the world we live in today. None of them were especially good solutions for human development, and the wars which followed in their wake were devastating.

2. Most people today assume that the social patterns and ideologies we have inherited from the past two centuries are now set in stone. There is “no other way” they feel. Yet real human organization has continued to change beyond recognition. The Internet and electronic communications have altered the very way we think. The production and consumption of goods and services flow across borders at ever increasing speeds. The meaning of money itself, how it is created and distributed, is only weakly related to the financial world of a century ago, though most people do not understand this.

3. Above all, the meaning of labour now has little to do with the descriptions found in old textbooks, or the notions of labour which politicians and journalists make fiction stories about on a daily basis. A man making widgets with a lathe can have his output measured in some equation of “productivity”. This is what the text books talk about. Yet how do you measure the productivity of knowledge workers? Nobody knows. You have the entrepreneur whose ideas and drive create a vast business, or the gifted teacher who inspires students, or the musician whose music millions listen to. These people are not replaceable cogs. They represent the major capital of enterprises which collapse when they depart. The rewards they earn vary wildly, from near starvation to the stratosphere, because there is no metric to measure their real contribution.

4. Contemporary institutions at every level are controlled by a management class, ostensibly on behalf of the owners of capital and a ruling elite. This management class is broadly hierarchical, with claims to a generalized skill set in the organization of other people. The management class has been a conscious creation since the end of World War 2. The agenda of these people, behind a blizzard of mission statements and ‘plans’, is the perpetuation of their own managerial existence. Overwhelmingly any efficiencies they create have been directed to self-reward. Attempts to rate the real effectiveness of managers strike real difficulties since competent leadership is hard to quantify. Nevertheless recent attempts which have been made rate the number of genuinely competent managers at around 10% of the whole. The equations of most standard economic models cannot properly account for the contributions, rewards and costs of a large management class.

5. And then we have the “precariat” – hundreds of millions of people for whom the idea of lifetime employment has become a mirage. If they work at all, it is part-time, or on short term contracts, or in intermittent jobs, and so on. In polite company they often describe themselves as "self-employed". There is no single uniting quality to these people, except their insecurity. Some have PhDs, some cannot read or write functionally. Some have great energy, some are lazy. Some are enterprising but unlucky. Many would be perfectly good workers if told what to do in a secure job, as their fathers and mothers did. These hundreds of millions are found in every continent and country, from rich countries to poor. Yet through no fault of their own, most of these people will never secure long term employment. Only a minority are needed as factory and office fodder. They will never be able to obtain the mortgage for a house, or plan for their retirement on a pension, or save for their children’s education or expect regular paid holidays. They are the marginal people. The grand social contract has passed them by. The story of belonging to a shared and fair community has passed them by. Fine words about democracy and all the rest ring hollow in their ears. They are the precariat with little to lose.

6. The ruling elites of the 19th Century were terrified of the new working classes and finally bought them off with social welfare programs (Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Germany first hit on this). Now the ruling elites of the 21st Century are terrified of the Precariat. The elites know insecure people are dangerous, they know that precariat numbers are overwhelming. Yet the elites, the academy, and the commentariat have no theory, no language, no model to handle the precariat. As a temporary distraction while they work out what to do,  the ruling elites, and their town criers in the media, have called up a storyline about terrorism and created the Security State. This is just blowing smoke in our eyes, and their own. They don’t know what the next step is. With their minds deadened by an uncritical education, few even understand that the old categories of raw materials, capital, labour etc play only one limited part in our complex present world. Common language disguises the realities in plain sight. In fact, what we have are Insecurity States and a swirling precariat. We await a prophet to make it all clear, and explain a way forward. 




7. Very often the most perilous solution to complex human issues is to insist on “a solution”, one solution. Each new emperor (read politician) claims to have the solution to the problems of the day, and occasionally like China’s infamous emperor Qin Shi Huangdi (秦始皇 221 BC) buries the old scholars alive and burns the books. In a similar way, historically each religion has claimed a monopoly on the way, the truth and the light, and when secure in the favour of some Caesar, has incinerated the opposition on bonfires, put them to the sword or cursed them for eternity in some very hot supernatural hell. The Marxist-Communist ideologues of the 20th Century likewise reigned by terror and sent skeptical souls to rot in gulags. As we know, fundamentalist Capitalists are still provoking wars in the name of free enterprise, plundering the lives of whole generations of ordinary people with banking piracy, and deploying coercive “diplomacy” to suppress any signs of challenge to their “neo-liberal” grand solution.

8. With all these cautionary tales in mind, the last thing we should hope for is an ideological solution to the vast challenge posed by the Precariat. We can look for patterns, and sometimes by asking non-conventional questions we may find hints of causes and paths to explore. Many of the best answers will be local to particular conditions, or special to unique sub-groups of people. We can conceive of a class of social, economic and technological problems which have salience for the Precariat as a whole. Some thoughtful people may even make a career from analyzing these issues on a broad scale. What we must resist from the outset though is the latest ambitious politician, having discovered this new word Precariat, turning up on Monday morning with a single, deadly solution and a new ideology.




Adonis, James (2013) “I’m bored witless – plight of the overqualified”. Brisbane Times, online @

Alia (September 3rd, 2013) "Is a college degree worthless in today’s China?" Offbeat China blog, online @

Bachelard, Michael (3 November 2013) "No more monkey business as governor steps in". The Brisbane Times, online @

Chomsky, Noam (5 August 2012) "Plutonomy and the Precariat". Huffington Post, online @ 

Govan, Fiona (2013) “Three degrees, yet I clean a lavatory – the tale of Spain’s lost generation”. Sydney Morning Herald, online @

Guy Standing (n.d.)  The Precariat Facebook page. Facebook, online @  [explanation: the sociologist, Guy Standing has defined what he calls a new social class, the Precariat. The rest of us call these people the insecurely employed. They now form a large part and increasing of the workforce in most countries, even amongst the highly educated. Standing has recognized that governments ignore this group of people, a socially perilous oversight. He has been giving lectures worldwide for several years on the subject]

Guy Standing (9 July, 2013) “Precariat And Peasant: Reframing Social Protection For The 21st Century”. SOAS University of London, inaugural address, online video @

Guy Standing (19 April 2013) "Defining the precariat". Eurozine, online @

Guy Standing (2012) "The precariat is you and me". The Drum, Australian Broadcasting Commission, online @ 

Guy Standing (24 May 2011) "The Precariat – The new dangerous class". Policy Network website, online @    

Guy Standing (2011) “The Precariat and Basic Income”. online @ || also The Precariat – the new dangerous class. (book) Bloomsbury Academic, online @

Karol (9 October 2013) "Insecure work in NZ’s precariat". The Standard, online @ 

Lee Chang-gon (March 27, 2013) “Koreans’ unhappiness is related to instability”. The Hankyoreh newspaper, online @

Strachan, Maxwell (22 October 2013) "Here Are 5 Million People That The U.S. Economy Has Abandoned". Huffington Post, online @ 

Weissmann, Jordan (Oct (9 2013) "1 in 5 U.S. Workers: I'm Too Educated for My Job -  Actually, that's not so bad, by international standards".  The Atlantic, online @ 

Weissmann, Jordan (February 20, 2013) "The Ph.D Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts". The Atlantic, online @

Wang Zhuoqiong (13 November 2013) “Survey: Chinese Workers Just Not Engaged”. China Daily, online @ http://www.Chinadaily.Com.Cn/China/2013-11/13/Content_17100147.Htm



Professional bio:

Thor May - citizen of the world (this one), born: 1945, exit: unknown; Writer, lecturer, researcher, editor (fixing funny English), teacher, teacher trainer (English language & linguistics). for commentary, articles, linguistics papers, poetry, photos, video, teaching materials, CV, publication list, and other confetti. Other Wordpress blogs: see Editing service Academic articles & papers at

Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


All opinions expressed here are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

The Precariously Employed ©Thor May 2013; all rights reserved

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