The rise of precarity

Understanding and navigating the emerging economic and social (dis)order

illustration of a man using the inside of an umbrella as a boat while he wades across choppy waters.

I got an email from a former student last week. She was excited to tell me about finally landing a permanent job. After four years of university and three years of contracts, finally, a permanent job. I heartily congratulated her but I still felt uneasy, knowing that so many others I’d taught were still caught in the trap of permanent temporariness. Because the other email I got last week was from a student still looking for work that will make full use of their knowledge and skills, and will give them the kind of financial security and stability that they can build a life on. It doesn’t seem like much to ask, but for more and more people in our society, it’s a dream that remains just out of reach.

As a professor of labour studies, I can’t ignore the growth of precarious work throughout our economy. The issue pervades the research in my discipline and permeates the lives of both my colleagues and students. It might surprise some of you to know that universities, the home of tenure for faculty, have seen an explosion of contract teaching over the past two decades. Some of the most highly educated people in our society must apply for each course they teach each semester, sometimes cobbling together a full-time job with contracts at multiple universities. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When I was deciding whether to pursue a doctorate in the mid-1990s, my professor assured me that when I graduated there would be plenty of tenure-stream faculty positions as the baby boomers retired. Instead, to cope with the ever-growing numbers of post-secondary students, universities rely more on precarious contract professors. Although I’m one of the lucky ones, a professor with tenure, I’m fully aware of how many equally bright, capable people are carving out a living on the margins of the university.

The prevalence of precarious work also affects my relationship with my students. A big part of what governments want from secondary and post-secondary educators is that we prepare students for the job market, with knowledge, skills and attitudes that will make them successful and attractive to employers. But the hard truth is that employers are less interested in offering those students the kinds of good jobs that were standard in the four decades after the Second World War. This has little to do with students’ abilities and everything to do with employers’ power to get the labour of well-educated workers without committing to a long-term employment relationship. Even the best students, who have done everything right, who have “invested” in their “human capital,” find themselves struggling to find a good job. And the impact on them, their families, and their communities is serious.

What is precarious work?
Labour studies researchers have identified several aspects of work that make it precarious. In an early discussion of the problem, Leah Vosko, Nancy Zukewich and Cynthia Cranford1 contrasted the “standard employment model”— in which “a worker has one employer, works full year, full time, on the employer’s premises, enjoys extensive statutory benefits and entitlements, and expects to be employed indefinitely”—with the growth of non-standard or contingent jobs. A precarious job is more likely to lack permanency, to be difficult to unionize or to regulate through employment standards, have little control over working hours or scheduling, and to be low income. Employers promoted such working arrangements under the banner of “flexibility,” an appealing concept for workers trying to juggle work and personal life. In practice, such flexibility has mostly benefitted employers, who have used these new working arrangements to quickly adjust the size of their workforces to respond to changes in the marketplace. Flexible workers become the shock absorbers for those changes, organizing their lives around the needs of employers.

Precarious work is undoubtedly on the rise. The job numbers for 2016 tell the tale: the number of new jobs created that are part-time far outstripped those that are full-time.2 As well, temporary jobs grew by 2.7 per cent last, compared to only 1.8 per cent more permanent jobs.3 And while the typical image we have of precarious work is that of a retail or food service job, these trends are not confined to the private service sector. Precarious work is spreading throughout the economy, to sectors that used to be characterized by stable jobs, like manufacturing, journalism, computer programming and engineering, the civil service, university research, nursing and, yes, teaching. In the face of declining enrolment, almost any teacher who has entered the profession over the past several years knows first-hand the frustration of occasional work, or the stress of not knowing if their full-time position will still be available to them the following year.

As well, precarious work is no longer a phenomenon of temporary, poorly paid, non-unionized work. Instead, precariousness has spread to those jobs that look like “standard jobs” but which are now performed under conditions of growing uncertainty. Many more people are now working in jobs that, while formally stable and permanent and even high income, are under threat of disappearing, whether from budget cuts, workplace restructuring, employer bankruptcy, or economic crisis. In some sense, more of us are living precariously now or are vulnerable to becoming precarious.

Living precariously
What does it mean to live precariously? Precarious work clearly has a negative economic and personal impact on those who are trying to make a life for themselves. For many young people now entering the labour market, the lack of a permanent income has meant delayed home ownership, delayed marriage and children, and living at home with parents for longer. Weaker incomes have meant lower rates of saving, higher levels of indebtedness and more debtfuelled consumption, which itself makes people more vulnerable to job loss. The implications of unstable work for pensions, whether employer provided or the Canada Pension Plan, are also severe, and the prospect of having to fund one’s own retirement looms on the horizon.

Living precariously is also making us sick. Wayne Lewchuk from McMaster’s School of Labour Studies has shown that there are rising levels of “employment strain.” That is, there are negative effects on health and wellbeing due to the uncertainty around one’s terms and conditions of work, as well as the stress of finding and keeping a job, the need to always be looking for employment.4 People in precarious work are clearly more likely to suffer from poor mental health, as they struggle with the anxiety of whether they will be able to keep their jobs, make ends meet, and balance all their responsibilities.5 Many lose confidence and self-esteem as they blame themselves for their lack of success in the labour market.

Precarity also has negative effects on the community. Those with uncertain work schedules, multiple jobs, or anxieties about their future often find it more difficult to engage in community life, whether that is through volunteering, engagement in sports or political activism, or even social time with friends and family. The energies that could be contributing to making our communities more vibrant are focused on getting, keeping and managing work.

Lewchuk’s research through the Precarious Employment and Poverty in Southern Ontario Project illustrates at length the toll that precarious work is taking on the lives of our families, friends and fellow community members. The stories these workers report are heartwrenching. For some, the shame, anxiety, and depression that come with not having a “proper job” is overwhelming.

Fighting precarious work
Those of us in the teaching profession who have secure jobs have a particular responsibility to fight precarious employment. For one thing, if we care about our students, we must care about the kind of labour market they are entering. That means understanding how and why employers and governments have allowed precarious employment to spread, and challenging the view that workers are to blame for their own poor job prospects. It also means that our organizations must place a high priority on creating pathways into secure employment for the next generation of teachers, and fighting for public policies that improve workers’ security and incomes across the entire economy.

Fighting precarious work is also in our own interest. First, insecure work is a problem we ourselves are likely to face, as our public sector employers seek to save money. Second, the political support that we might expect from members of the public when we seek to defend our jobs, our working conditions, and the quality of services we provide may not always be there. If we are an island of security in a growing sea of precarity, it becomes difficult to expect precarious workers to defend the kinds of employment they’ve never seen nor seem likely to experience themselves. In that sense, the inequality that precarious work creates within our economy and society only makes our battles more difficult.

1 Leah Vosko, Nancy Zukewich and Cynthia Cranford, “Precarious Jobs: A New Typology of Employment,” Perspectives, October 2003: 16.
2 Lisa Wright, “Part-time work fuels Canada’s labour market in 2016,” Toronto Star, 6 January 2017. Online at economy/2017/01/06/part-time-work-fuelscanadas-labour-market-in-2016.html
3 Statistics Canada, Average hourly wages of employees by selected characteristics and occupation, unadjusted data, by province, 6 January 2017. Online at sum-som/l01/cst01/labr69a-eng.htm
4 Wayne Lewchuk, Marlea Clarke, Alice De Wolff, Working Without Commitments: The Health Effects of Precarious Employment. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.
5 PEPSO, The Precarity Penalty, May 2015: 80-81. Online at document.doc?id=3071

About Stephanie Ross
Stephanie Ross is an Associate Professor with the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University. She is also the President of the Canadian Association for Work & Labour Studies.

1 Comment on The rise of precarity

  1. So what is the course (plan?) of action to be taken?
    What is the real “solution” to the destruction caused by precarious work?
    Is it found in the “Changing Workplaces Review” which will be announced this week in Ontario?
    Or is it somewhere else? A “Change” in the government? Education? Street demonstrations?
    What about a “Change” in the political-economic system?

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