The Precariat

The Precariat. I did not know we have a term for this socioeconomic state. But apparently, we have had a name for it for quite a while—since the 1980s, according to Macmillan. A combination of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat,’ the precariat originally described temporary workers without a social safety net or employment protection. Since 2011, the term is applied more widely.

Macmillan defines the term as follows:

The precariat describes a social class of people whose lives are ‘precarious’ because their employment situation provides them with very little or no financial stability.

Macmillan Dictionary (2011)

(If you want to read more about the precariat, I recommend Guy Standing’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, published by Bloomsbury.)

I cannot remember a single conference or workshop I attended these last years that didn’t address precarity in academia. We either talked about our own precarious situations during coffee breaks and receptions (how precarious is my situation if I managed to attend?) or scholars devoted presentations and even roundtables to the topic.

Last week I attended a presentation on the postdoctoral stage. Most of us attendees were awarded our PhDs recently or would be soon. The presenters (all women) were young postdoctoral researchers and established professors. They narrated very different (personal) experiences. But they agreed on our precarious situation.

I was sitting there. Listening. Wondering. Last week, I didn’t know about the precariat and its original ‘members.’ But I am an anthropologist. I have worked in poor societies. I have seen people starving and dying on the streets. Getting treatments in badly equipped hospitals because they couldn’t afford anything else. (But at least they could.) I once saw a dead man on the stairs to the subway, dried blood around his head. No one stopped. Afraid of corruption. Afraid of consequences.

So I asked myself: how precarious am I? As a freelancer, I have no way of knowing how the next month will go. Will I be able to pay my rent? But I won’t have to starve on the streets. If I have an accident, people won’t have to be afraid to help me. I’m living in a society which let me do a PhD. I didn’t have to flee war, poverty, or famine to work poorly paid night shifts in a factory. (Although I did the poorly paid night shifts for a few weeks before I started studying.)

I’m not saying that we are not living in precarious situations. We do. But from time to time it might be helpful to put everything into perspective. As young anthropologists (and scholars in general) we are precarious academics, but we are not part of the precariat. Most of us still have options.

I’ll go now and prepare for one of my options—my job interview with an international coffee chain tomorrow. Because I am a precarious academic. But an academic. And not precarious.


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