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Has the crisis changed the nature of work?

This article is over 10 years, 5 months old
As youth unemployment spirals and resistance to it takes off, some say there is a new class rising: the ‘precarious workers’. Kevin Doogan tells Socialist Worker it’s not that simple
Issue 2266

Young people not in regular work have been significant to the resistance in both Greece and Spain. What do you think is happening?

It is heartening to see the anxiety in financial circles that the spirit of rebellion among young people might spread across the Mediterranean.

But it is important that we understand what is happening with youth unemployment—in Spain in particular, but also more generally.

The crisis is reshaping the age profile of the employed workforce in Europe. In previous recessions older workers left the labour market in droves, which took some of the pressure off young job seekers.

But currently the average age at exit has jumped by five years due to changes in retirement and pension provision, and the decline in house prices. This will intensify the experience of the crisis for young people.

In Spain, a country that has an exceptionally high proportion of workers on temporary contracts, the situation facing young people is of extreme and concentrated disadvantage.

Young Spaniards leaving secondary school are by European standards very badly equipped and poorly educated, with the proportion leaving without educational qualifications double the European Union average.

Youth unemployment in the 15 to 24 age group is 45 percent—and among the 15 to 19 age group it is 65 percent. The unemployment rate falls sharply from these heights as workers get older.

Yet it is important to see this within the bigger context of the Spanish working class. We should reject the idea of some youth underclass or, as has become fashionable, to imagine that the young unemployed constitute a “precariat” set apart from the rest of the working class.

Since the start of the crisis some 52 percent of Spanish job losses have been in construction and 90 percent of total jobs lost were temporary.

So young people have had an intense experience of the crisis—but it is one that also cuts across the working class and is not separate from them.

The demands of the “Youth With No Future” are for jobs, pensions and housing, which go with the grain of the broader class struggle against austerity. So they are part of the movement, not separate from it.

So does this mean there is no such thing as precarious employment?

We have to distinguish between ideology and structural change. The evidence for a transformation of work, characterised by new patterns of engagement between workers and employers based on short-term or temporary contracts, does not explain the widespread perceptions of job insecurity.

Opinion poll evidence in recent years has suggested that more that 30 percent of the workforce think their jobs are under serious threat—but this far exceeds the rates of redundancy. So we have to distinguish between the fear and the likelihood of job loss.

The thinker Pierre Bourdieu described précarité as a mode of social control in which fear and uncertainty is exaggerated to discipline workers. It is a set of beliefs peddled by the bosses, the media and government—but it is also spread by workers and their organisations.

So we must not echo and amplify these fears about the threats of job losses, or exaggerate any trends towards temporary employment.

Yet trade unions and left wing commentators, even Marxists, are guilty of overstating the threat of outsourcing, technological change, and precariousness.

I don’t believe that workers will rally round the banner of job insecurity—but they will fight for welfare services, pensions, wages and benefits and, where circumstances allow, against redundancies.

That is why I have argued that there are “left wing harmonies in the neoliberal chorus”, when many who are sympathetic to the cause of labour express pessimism about the capacity of workers to defend and advance their own interests.

Among those commentators are many who argue that working class struggle is now irrelevant, as bosses can simply move production to the Global South. You argued in your book New Capitalism? The Transformation Of Work that this is not true. Why is that the case?

There is a very widely accepted view that the world of work has changed. Globalisation to many people means that companies can up sticks and scour the globe to seek out the cheapest labour to exploit.

Because capital is mobile, the balance of power is said to have swung against labour, and workers have little option but to accept attacks on wages and working conditions, unemployment or short-term jobs.

However, the statistics show a different picture. Despite the rapid growth of China and India, multinational corporations remain entrenched in their home markets.

If you take US multinationals, the balance between their domestic and overseas operations has little changed over the last three decades.

If capital was simply interested in seeking out cheap labour then multinational corporations would converge on sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet whole swathes of the Global South, comprising the poorest countries in the world, have been shunned by foreign investment.

Honda, Nissan and Toyota set up car plants in Britain not because British wages were low, but because they wanted access to the European market. Most overseas investment has been directed towards the rich markets of the developed economies.

Your book came out just as the economic crisis was biting. Three years on, what has changed and what has stayed the same?

This is a global crisis similar in scale to the loss of output in the 1930s, but there are different transmission mechanisms, whether through finance or trade.

This means that the impact in terms of unemployment is quite uneven. In Holland unemployment has little changed at around 4–5 percent—but it has soared in Ireland, and in Spain it has reached 25 percent.

The good news is that unemployment is unlikely to reach the same levels of the 1930s, when the proportion out of work in the US reached 25 percent, Germany almost 30 percent and in Britain 20 percent.

The bad news is that recovery will be slower. Last year the International Labour Organisation predicted that pre-crisis levels of employment would be reached by 2013.

Now this has been put back to 2015, with every possibility that it will be further postponed.

The austerity programmes demanded by governments, bankers and bondholders will prolong the Great Recession, even if 1930s Depression levels of unemployment are not reached.

Some workers, particularly in the public sector, might think about gritting their teeth and taking a hit on wages or working for an extra couple of years to get through a lean period.

But the nature of the offensive means that there will be wave after wave of attacks on wages, pensions, benefits as well as jobs. The mainstream parties accept the logic of austerity and will try to confine debate to the timetable for cutbacks.

So it is essential to articulate the alternative policy response based on the premise that workers will not pay for the gambling debts of the bankers or sacrifice the welfare state to appease the financial markets.

Is there an attempt to restructure capital to deal with the crisis?

The crisis is evolving through different phases. What was initially seen as a housing crisis mutated into a financial then an economic crisis and now, especially in Europe and the US, a sovereign debt crisis.

This means that it feels very different from previous recessions. The bankers’ bailouts have relocated the recession from the private to the public sector and it is the welfare state that is bearing the brunt of the restructuring.

We need to understand how the public sector labour market works, because it is different from the private sector, and has its own dynamics and system of planning and funding.

Unemployment has not risen as sharply as it did in the recession of the 1980s. But the restructuring of the public sector they want to impose means that the austerity offensive is not confined to jobs. It extends to a much broader assault on pay, benefits, pensions and retirement age.

Their agenda is extraordinarily ambitious and concentrated within a very short timeframe. The banks were given to 2019 to make minor adjustments—but the public sector has to meet drastic cutbacks by 2014.

Thatcher took a decade to privatise 10 percent of the economy and she carefully picked her battles. This much weaker Tory government seems reckless in comparison.

Kevin Doogan is the author of New Capitalism? The Transformation Of Work, available for £16.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to or phone 020 7637 1848

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