Rise of the 'precariat,' the global scourge of precarious jobs

With relatively little notice, the world passed a modern milestone recently, Brian Stewart writes: The global jobless total passed 200 million, while only one in four have anything like a stable job. Is it any wonder so many places are in turmoil?

Barely one in four of the global workforce has a stable job, UN reports

An Afghan immigrant sleeps on a bench outside a local police station on the Greek island of Kos last week as tourists bike by. Hundreds of immigrants and Syrian refugees arrived on the tourist island over the past three days. (REUTERS)

With relatively little notice, the world passed a modern milestone recently, one that makes any yearning for more stable times seem very farfetched — the global jobless total passed 200 million.

To help put that in perspective, that's 30 million more without work than at the height of the global recession in 2008, according to the UN report that crunched the numbers.

This is a shocker on its own. But even more ominous is the growing precariousness of the job situation for those that have them, according to the UN study, "The changing nature of jobs."

It warns of "widespread insecurity" spreading as momentum shifts from societies with full-time jobs to shaky short-term employment across much of the globe.

Another scary fact the study unearths is how many people these days have stable work contracts of any kind. That's barely one in four of the globe's workforce.  

The overwhelming majority of people on the planet struggle with temporary work, informal or illegal jobs, long spells of unemployment and unpaid family work.

In other words, most are caught in a disadvantageous spiral where exploitation is a real risk.

Wave of refugees

Want more perspective on how today's world works? Much of temporary work simply can't sustain families anymore and one quarter of the world's workforce earns around $2 a day.

As the UN report notes, mass unemployment and underemployment puts steady downward pressure on wages — along with increasing child labour, estimated conservatively at 73 million, many working in near slave conditions.

Refugees from Burundi fleeing ongoing violence and political tension disembark from a UN-sponsored ship along the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika last week. From the Middle East to Africa and Southeast Asia, some 54 million migrants are on the move. (REUTERS)

The combined scourges of job insecurity and unlivable wages contribute to the quite unprecedented wave of the estimated 54 million global refugees, people attempting to escape both violence and destitution, many risking death at sea to avoid no-hope futures.

International relief agencies and national intelligence services alike are well aware that social anxieties on this scale guarantee more violent explosions in the future.

Especially worrisome is the fact that neither political nor economic leaders seem to have answers.

For something appears to have gone very wrong in an era that pinned so many hopes on globalization and high-tech solutions, large and small, but which seems instead to have reinforced the trend towards social instability.

Rise of the precariat

What was once viewed as a passing crisis now seems to be the new normal, producing deep psychological unease within the workforce and growing inequality between those with stable incomes and those without.

Global financial officials are worried to the point they've again started using the term "hysteresis," borrowed from physics, to warn that long-established unemployment is becoming "structural" and therefore harder to correct, as the jobless lose skills and companies grow addicted to cheaper, temporary labour.

Laid-off Walmart employees rally outside a location in Los Angeles that was closed earlier this year on very short notice, while workers were agitating for better conditions and pay. (REUTERS)

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, often called the developed world's think tank, describes this ugly phenomenon as the rise of the precariat — a play on the working-class proletariat and meaning those trapped in precarious lives with neither material nor psychological welfare.

In this situation, already tense areas of the world will almost certainly become more turbulent.

The Middle East and North Africa, for example, have the highest youth unemployment in the world, close to 30 per cent.

And there, as in much of the less-developed world, it is the more educated young people, those with degrees, who have highest rates of job insecurity.

What forward movement?

This growing global joblessness helps explain the rash of risk-all migrations we've seen these last several years, as well as the expansion of extremist doctrines in what some analysts call the age of terror.

But while the number of those migrating in search of work keeps rising, the doors of prosperous receiving nations are slamming shut because they have their own job crises — 18 million jobless in Europe now — as well as angry workforces and populist parties insisting low-wage migrants will only make matters worse.

Jobless workers queue at the employment centre to open in Sintra, Portugal, in May 2015, where the unemployment rate neared 14 per cent and is almost double that for young people. (REUTERS)

The reality is that many societies today, including the prosperous ones like Australia and Canada, face greater social inequality as the shift to a "hire and fire culture" of temporary workers lowers the chances of those toiling on low wages to move up the economic ladder.

The situation is likely worse than we think. For the "quality" of Canadian employment  meaning less job security and fewer benefits — is currently at a 25-year low, 10 per cent below what it was in the 1990s, according to the latest CIBC work quality index.

Even in the glittering horseshoe of Southern Ontario, barely half of working adults have full-time permanent jobs, and almost all job growth now seems only to expand the insecure work, the kind that has little prospect of outstripping inflation.

It's hard to escape the feeling that even as our societies grow richer we are, bizarrely, looping backwards.

"The GDP per capita keeps going up. The problem is that we're not sharing the wealth at all equitably," says Wayne Lewchuk of McMaster University who researches precarious employment. "In many ways we've gone back to a 1920s mentality"

The Twenties did not have an encouraging outcome, as we know.

Still, looking at these striking global trends in joblessness and precarious work, as well as at the soaring refugee numbers and widening inequality, it's difficult to get around the nagging feeling that this century's forward movement has stalled and is on slippery ground. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.