The Precariatisation of Work

With changes in work and employment patterns in 21st century there has been a precariatisation of work, where employment contracts are de-securitised, low-pay dominates and there is an increasing individuation of work-life, alongside a blurring of work and leisure. Developments like the sharing economy and the move toward a self-employment in-name-only represent a significant economic reorganisation of work. While this precariatisation has certain elements that have become universalisable amongst developed and developing nations, this essay will focus primarily on workforces in the post-industrial West.

During the Bretton Woods era in most Western countries work-life was regulated by rules and norms. Once one left education, they would normally get a job that lasted right through to retirement. There were clear delineations between work and leisure, effectively seeing work as a means to a better life, as a goal of consumption. In the area of wages and unionisation, it was seen that they would rise in line with inflation and productivity gains, and that to maintain this norm one would be a member of a trade union that could represent labour in the tripartite negotiations between them, capital and the state. One would be trained in a particular set of skills which would keep them in the same career trajectory for life. These norms and relations were the major drivers of working life.

However, with the development of neoliberalism in the 80s and 90s, work-life began to lose this function. The security that jobs provided was eroded with self-responsibility and flexibility being pushed onto individuated workers. Processes of deindustrialisation and de-unionisation were supported by Western governments of the time, and the division of labour within corporations was internationalised into global production networks. The service sector began to dominate employment, and with it came lower wages, temporary contracts and the increasing need for flexibility.

The precarity of modern work evolved from this. Risk, originally taken on the by the company who employed, is made the responsibility of the individual worker. Reskilling, flexibility and entrepreneurial responsibility are now the domain of the modern labourer. Rather than being “a romantic free spirit who rejects norms of the old working class steeped in stable labour”[1] there is instead a precarious figure, stripped of autonomy but presented with responsibility. This presents consequences that the modern growth regime ignores, from alienation to the development of a liquid society. With modern work, one becomes universally employable due to the need for flexibility and reskilling. However, when one is universally employable, that means they are also universally replaceable.

A precarious workforce has evolved from the Bretton Woods era through to a globalised division of labour. This has led to deindustrialisation and the development of economies dominated by services and tertiary activities, particularly in Western Europe, Japan and the United States. In the Bretton Woods systems of Fordist production, wages were linked to economy-wide increases in productivity and price inflation[2]. This settlement, originally conceived in the automobile sector, developed into “orbits of coercive comparison”[3] which universalised this model of corporate-union negotiation in most Western countries. Such defined the Fordist mode of production and growth.

However with neoliberal growth regimes developing in the 1980s and 90s, these settlements began to be dismantled, with work-life radically changing as a result. The construction of the globalised world that we see around us has created a “risk society”, a system of understanding oneself as uncertain in the surrounding world, always “becoming” but never actually being[4]. Responses to these moves are always in the direction of acceptance, thus closing “down political and social space”[5] and labelling alternatives as utopian or nostalgic and impossible to realise. The risk society, and its conception of uncertainty, act as governance mechanisms, developing “a new performative economy”[6] of acceptance toward uncertainty,  the elimination of effective security and the creation of a body of labour that is constantly fluid and attentive to the flexible needs of capital.

This restructuring of employment consists of the downsizing and contingency of modern employment in lean firms, where core workers are kept to a minimum and armies of reserve labour, the contracted and self-employed, are used on a part-time basis[7]. “Each individual is to be her own political economy, an informed, self-sufficient” individual[8] given the falsehood of autonomy by taking on the risks of an entrepreneur while under the control of capital. The lean firm, as it has become, is the centralising authority that confirms an entrepreneurial zeal upon its workforce, crafting an entrepreneur of the self, one “who is at once responsible for ‘his’ capital and guilty of poor management”[9]. This is a development of a networked form of employment, “a social structure”[10] not in opposition to individuation but one that encourages it. Employees are collated as entrepreneurs or self-employed autonomous individuals under a centralised auspice of managerial control. As Lazzarato notes in relation to the financial evaluation of entrepreneurs and the self-employed, “the rise of financial evaluation represents in practice an expropriation and deprivation of the power to act. Indeed, the increase in management techniques based on evaluation has narrowed the space left to wage-earners, users, and the governed in general”[11]. A “deregulated life”[12] of enforced risk-taking and a fallacy of autonomy define the modern workforce of precariatised employees and contractors.

The technical conditions of the precarious worker include job insecurity, the lack of a consistent income and the development of a new work-based identity centred around “career-less jobs” and a lack of solidarity amongst employees[13]. The dominant services and knowledge sectors of modern Western economies represent a significant avenue of precariatisation, as seen in the dependence the self-employed have upon centralised authorities and monopolies in these sectors through their control of intellectual property, advertising rights and production flows. Things like “kintractship” in Japan and forms of occupational “uptitling”[14] represent particular mechanisms of precariatisation. The former represented the transformation of the Japanese salaryman in the company into the de-securitised, temporary worker reliant on part-time work and the altruism of the company. The latter on the other hand represents a new form of in-work hierarchy. The limitation of promotion opportunities in low-pay, temporary work leads to the development of “high-sounding epithet(s) to conceal precariat tendencies”[15] to provide meaning in work. Both represent the development of a false autonomy, and the encouragement of an independence-in-name-only amongst a precarious workforce of part-time labourers, contractors and lean firms.

The development of this precariatised workforce can be seen in particular trends in the global economy. Since the 1980s there has been a decoupling of wages and productivity with the end of the corporate agreements that developed during the Bretton Woods era. In the United States “in the past 10 years productivity has increased 12.3 percent in the non-farm business sector of our economy while real compensation of labor has increased by only 5.1 percent”[16]. During this period the structural power of capital has increased with globalisation and the concentration of wealth. In this concentration of wealth “the top centile of the income hierarchy is very clearly dominated by top capital incomes”[17] with monopoly rent (income earned from “the special position of the firm”[18]) representing a significant element of this capital income. While this economic rent was originally negotiable between stakeholders in firms, the de-unionisation of workforces and their progressive casualisation has meant a disaggregation of the interests of collective workforces. An individuated workforce cannot claim collective rights to economic rent.

There is both a flexibilisation of shift work and increasingly longer hours for those working in developed countries. In the transport, communications and storage subsectors and the retail sectors there have been consistent increases in working hours across nations and production networks[19]. Further, in many countries there are emerging hours-averaging work patterns, where an average is accorded over a reference period, with hours per week varying while attempting to stay within this longer-term reference period[20]. In the UK, part-time and temporary work has been increasing in the UK since the recession, with the former increasing as a constant average of the overall labour force since the 1980s. This particular trend has been focused within two major sectors, administration and retail work[21]. When understanding this trend in relation to increased hours for particular workforces, and the development of contracting out and casualisation, we see a flexibilisation placed firmly on the shoulders of the labourer, who is made to be available to the company at varying times.

The move toward self-employment fits right into these strategies of flexibilisation as well. When understanding self-employment in the push theory of wages, we see that the self-employed are in such a situation due not to a rejection of employment but due to the inability to find stable work[22]. Surveys of the self-employed in the UK show this as an increasing element in the choice to become self-employed[23] since the recession. With the advent of the sharing economy and the Uberisation of employment conditions amongst the self-employed, we are seeing these trends taken to new extremes. The proprietary elements of the sharing economy (i.e. housing, cars, tools, etc.) are nominally owned by the self-employed “entrepreneur”, but the platform and capital ownership are controlled in effective technological monopolies (Uber, AirBNB, TaskRabbit) due to the ownership of intellectual property rights. Such can be seen in Uber’s pay structures, where changes in commission pay are enforcing a form of work discipline that requires longer working hours with less compensation[24]. Once again, it is self-employment in-name-only.

Thus we are seeing a full shift in Western countries from the Fordist mode of production that characterised the Bretton Woods system of economic regulation toward a flexibilised, post-Fordism where the flexibility and risk are the major elements of work-life. The economy becomes “compartmentalized”, integrating new sectors such as information aggregation and design[25] while the industrial sectors become secondary in Western countries. Wage scales, formerly based around productivity gains and the agreements of companies and unions, are now decoupled from productivity as these new economic sectors produce forms of capital and rent that are not captured by labour-based stakeholders[26]. An “automatic production control divides up the production processes in a new way”[27], centralising the forces of production while rearranging the labour processes in such a way that an individuated, autonomous-in-name-only workforce is amenable to such processes. The worker becomes an adjunct of the production process[28], or is removed from the process altogether into the de-securitised tertiary sectors.

New forms of rent, such as those deriving from technological monopoly, are increasingly difficult to capture by an individuated workforce. Technological innovation and computerisation are already beginning to effect the majority of low-skill workers[29] by eliminating or replacing their work sectors. Further, the new jobs that are being created by innovation are not re-engaging low-skilled employees or replacing lost jobs sufficiently[30]. “In short, although technological progress continues to create new jobs, these have largely been confined to skilled workers”[31].

Two phenomena are occurring simultaneously. First, the new workforces developing under post-Fordist systems of production and control are increasingly individuated and flexibilised. Trade unions, able to capture productivity gains and monopoly rent, are now irrelevant as new economic sectors do not rely on the productivity of the factory floor. Instead workers are made temporary, moving in and out of the workforce and having their lives based around the needs of capital-owners and employers. Secondly, a generalisable reserve army of labour is constructed. There is a need to shoulder risk and be constantly reskilling and deskilling as work is temporary and produces a lack of security. A picture of entrepreneurialism or autonomy is painted, but this is largely a facade. The effect of Uberisation shows this, where Uber’s drivers are nominally self-employed yet the app, wage-scales and other technology are owned and controlled by Uber.

Labour is a tendential element of capital accumulation, made amenable to the needs of capital. The “reproduction of the skills of labour power tends (this is a tendential law) decreasingly to be provided for ‘on the spot’ (apprenticeship within production itself), but is achieved more and more outside production: by the capitalist education system, and by other instances and institutions”[32]. This burden of education and skill-creation is placed into the hands of the individuated worker, with this individual made a cog in the systems of production or a member of a vast reserve army of labour.

Thus there is a liquidation of work-life as normally conceived. The move from Fordism to post-Fordism has not been a natural evolution but has developed through a series of crises in the current growth regime, with the recent recession one example of this crisis of accumulation. The provision of economic security has become individualised, removed from collective structures, with “more flexibility”[33] pushed as the solution. Further, with the normalisation of this de-securitised labour force, there is a blurring between the Uberised worker and the traditional, securitised workforces. “The less the lines separating ‘normality’ from ‘abnormality'”[34] are. New forces of abstraction, exerting “a form of social compulsion whose impersonal, abstract, and objective character is historically new”[35], are created that lead to alienation and a liquidation of collective solidarity in work.

The changing nature of work in the post-Fordist or neoliberal era shows a move toward de-securitisation, individuation and the production of risk disguised as entrepreneurialism and self-employment. The production of insecurity and the constant need for flexibility produce a new form of worker, one who must identify their life with work. A form of “soft capitalism” is constructed whose discourses aim at “enhancing commitment and motivation; identifying and unlocking barriers to success; seeking identity”[36], thus constructing the worker’s identity around their product.

With the precarity of labour ongoing and increasing in intensity, and the worker’s identity falsely constructed around autonomy while its construction is centralised under the auspice of the monopolistic corporation, we’re seeing the commodity relation move into every realm conceivable. From personal, affective services to neighbourly services (dog-walking, babysitting, car boot/garage sales) being centralised into new technological monopolies, work becomes an extension of one’s overall life, rather than something seen as separate or distinctive. The separation of work and leisure is meaningless when one is on call 24/7 in some configuration of self-employment. The nascent sharing economy represents this phenomenon of extreme commodification.

However there also exists a dialectical nature between the increasingly networked and quasi-independent nature of modern employment, and its centralised control by capital. In one way, it presents an avenue of exit from centralising capitalist forces by allowing individual access to the means of entrepreneurship, but because it originates directly from capitalist forces it also represents an enclosure of entrepreneurial opportunities and the commodification of non-commodified areas of life. “The rhetoric of modern management attempts to disguise power in the new economy by making the worker believe he or she is a self-directing agent”[37]. The changing nature of work and employment in the neoliberal era represents a significant centralisation of identity and power away from the forms of collective solidarity toward a centralised control through capital.

[1] Standing, G. 2011, 9

[2] Piore, M. & Sabel, C. 1984, 80

[3] Piore, M. & Sabel, C. 1984, 80

[4] Amoore, L. 2004, 176

[5] Amoore, L. 2004, 176

[6] Amoore, L. 2004, 181

[7] Amoore, L. 2004, 182-183

[8] Amoore, L. 2004, 186

[9] Lazzarato, M. 2012, 52

[10] Rainnie, A., Herod, A. & McGrath-Champ, S. 2011, 156

[11] Lazzarato, M. 2012, 140

[12] Amoore, L. 2004, 179

[13] Standing, G. 2011, 11-12

[14] Standing, G. 2011, 17

[15] Standing, G. 2011, 17

[16] Solow, R. 2015

[17] Piketty, T. 2014, 372

[18] Solow, R. 2015

[19] Lee, S., McCann, D. & Messenger, J. 2007, 93

[20] Lee, S., McCann, D. & Messenger, J. 2007, 100

[21] IPPR, 2010

[22] Lee, S., McCann, D. & Messenger, J. 2007, 104-105

[23] D’Arcy, D. & Gardiner, L. 2014, 31-32

[24] Huet, E. 2015

[25] Aglietta, M. 2010, 423

[26] Aglietta, M. 2010, 423

[27] Aglietta, M. 2010, 127

[28] Piore, M. & Sabel, C. 1984, 23

[29] Frey, C.B. & Osborne, M. 2015, 58

[30] Frey, C.B. & Osborne, M. 2015, 63

[31] Frey, C.B. & Osborne, M. 2015, 63

[32] Althusser, L. 1971, 132

[33] Bauman, Z. 2007, 14

[34] Bauman, Z. 2007, 32

[35] Postone, M. 1993, 158-159

[36] Amoore, L. 2004, 186

[37] Amoore, L. 2004, 185


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4 thoughts on “The Precariatisation of Work

  1. Great compendium of how income inequality came into being from a modern standpoint. It is important to understand how we got to this point, but the question is how do we change it. No credible solutions are coming from politicians and it is unknown if the grassroots can change things in a direction for the better. It seems no matter who is in power the same problems will persist.

    Liked by 1 person

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