Confronting Precarious Work

by Arne L Kalleberg

In his 1998 book The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett anticipated one of the major challenges of our time: creating career narratives in an era of precarious work. Linear and well-defined career trajectories involving transitions from education to stable jobs are fast becoming a thing of the past as both the young and old struggle to make sense of their lives in countries characterized by rapidly changing work, family and political environments.

The uncertainties and insecurities unleashed by these changes have played a major part in fuelling the populist movements that led to the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the surprising election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the right-wing movements in France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and other European countries. While these movements are complex and result from many factors, a major source of unrest and discontent is the insecurity associated with the growth of precarious work. Supporters of these political movements have seen in them a way to return to a nostalgic past when jobs were relatively secure, career paths were well defined and economic growth offered financial security and promises of upward mobility.

There is no returning to such a rosy past, however. The three decades after World War II were associated with a historically unique set of circumstances. The dynamic upheavals associated with globalization, technological developments in communication and information technology, and cultural disruptions have made it increasingly difficult for people to obtain meaningful work and establish a sense of stability in their lives. A key challenge for the year 2017 and beyond is to address the risks associated with precarious work and thereby provide the job and economic security that would enable the construction of orderly career narratives.

How do we achieve policies that might create greater job and economic security? We must first recognize that the growth of precarious work represents global challenges. All countries face pressures to be more competitive in product and labour markets and to adapt to social and economic changes such as rapid technological changes and increased movements of people across national borders. We must also understand that the sources of precarious work and insecurity are not mainly the features of globalization per se, such as immigration or international trade; rather, they derive from the shifting of the risks of work from employers and governments to workers themselves. We need policies that will collectivize these risks to reduce the anxieties and uncertainties that they create.

Achieving this goal is possible, since the consequences of globalization and technological change are not inevitable but rather depend on the enactment of political, social and economic policies that are within the control of employers and governments. Social science research has shown clearly that labour market and welfare state institutions, for example, are effective in influencing the degree of job and economic insecurity in a country. Two key conclusions have emerged from this research: First, active labour market policies that help people transition from unemployment to employment are helpful in reducing both job and economic insecurity. Second, generous welfare benefits that are not tied to employers but come from outside labour markets, in the social protections that were designed to complement labour market institutions, are critical.

The challenge for countries is to have the political will to adopt policies that are effective in addressing insecurity, exclusion and other consequences of precarious work. The neoliberal revolution of the past several decades has exalted the dominance of markets in decision-making and contributed to the growing dominance of capital relative to labour and governments; this has shifted the balance of power heavily in favour of strategies to enhance employers’ flexibility at the expense of workers’ security. Austerity policies that arose during the latest economic crisis continue to influence government decision-making and have fuelled efforts to prioritize “free market” principles at the expense of the social protections needed to shield workers from the consequences of unfettered market capitalism.

Is it possible to adopt policies to collectivize the risks associated with precarious work? Of course it is. As Karl Polanyi reminded us many years ago, there is a dual movement between free markets and social protections; this pendulum swing has occurred in the past and can occur again. However, this swing of the pendulum is not automatic: just as the movement toward neoliberal policies and market dominance was created by political decisions to deregulate markets and liberalize economic policies, so too the movement toward greater social and economic protections depends on political efforts. The great challenge before us is to direct these political efforts in a democratic direction, avoiding the resort to authoritarianism to protect individuals that Polanyi feared.

About the author

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Arne L. Kalleberg is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and holds Adjunct Professorships in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, the Department of Public Policy, and the Curriculum in Global Studies. He can be reached at
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