Graffiti in central Madrid.

Youthful members of the full-time precariat

The crisis has accelerated the emergence of a new social class in Europe. Dubbed "the precariat" by sociologists, it is made up of young people with no prospect of a decent job or a reasonable standard of living.

Published on 15 September 2011 at 14:40
PacoPan  | Graffiti in central Madrid.

Poland can now lay claim to its first “satisfied” young generation. According to the government’s "Młodzi 2011" ("Young people 2011") report, Poles in the 15-34 age group are very much like their peers in Western Europe. Confirmed hedonists and ardent consumers, they tend to be uninterested in the institution of marriage, but eager to cultivate their individualism and, at the same time, assume a role that is useful to society.

Although they consider work to be the main condition for their future success and happiness, they are faced with increasing difficulty in their bid to find jobs. According to data reported in July 2011, the rate of unemployment in the 18-34 age group, which accounts for more than half of Poland’s unemployed, is twice the national average of 11.7%.

The current social context is fraught with risk. This has been particularly obvious in Western Europe, which, over the last few years, has been regularly affected by outbursts of anger on the part of the young generation. The burning of the Paris suburbs, the street battles in downtown Athens, the mass demonstrations in Madrid and, more recently, the riots in London are clear signs of a social crisis.

Uncertain future

Young people are the main victims of the economic crisis. Currently, 20.4% of Europeans in the 15 to 24 age group who seek work remain without jobs. That is a third more than in 2008. At the same time, this rate is a European average, which masks major disparities between countries: 42% of young people are without jobs in Spain, 30% in the Baltic States, Greece and Slovakia, and 20% in Poland, Hungary, Italy and Sweden.

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In cases where the young unemployed finally do find jobs, these are rarely stable. Slovenia and Poland are both distinguished by their extraordinary number of temporary workers: 60% of wage earners aged in the under-25 age group are employed under temporary contracts. The situation is almost as bad in France, Germany, Sweden, Spain and Portugal, where this figure stands at more than 50%.

The underpayment of young people is another phenomenon that is very widespread in Spain, France and Portugal. Spanish workers aged between 16 and 19 only receive 45.5% of an average adult’s wage, while those aged between 20 and 24 earn only 60.7%. These low salaries have a direct impact on the growing numbers of the working poor, who do not have enough income to cover their needs, even though they have jobs. As a percentage of the labour force, the working poor are most common in Romania (17.9%) and Greece (13.8%), which are ranked ahead of Spain (11.4%), Latvia (11.1 %) and Poland (11%).

What all of these people have in common is uncertainty about their future, which prevents them from planning their lives, and low wages that do not allow them a decent living. In Latin, precarius means "obtained by prayer." In contemporary sociology, ‘precarious work’ describes a type of employment that leaves people suspended between poverty and prosperity, deprives them of material security, and forces them to live with a social status that is under constant threat of collapse.

As the Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath and the author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing, explains, we are currently witnessing the global emergence of new social class.

Pact with the devil

Over the last 20 years, Western governments have succeeded in hiding the increasing precarity of the middle classes. In the United States and the United Kingdom, they have used the tax system to subsidise the lowly paid. In Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, in a desperate bid to keep unemployment statistics down, they have adjusted social policy to encourage people to get back to work as quickly as possible.

In France, Italy and Spain, the state provides indirect assistance to young people by paying pensions to parents who bankroll their unemployed children. In short, the governments of developed countries have entered into a pact with the devil by administering a fundamentally unsustainable system, which has now broken down.

Now that the financial crisis has forced Europe to contend with the threat of state bankruptcy, governments can no longer expect to sweep the precariat under a carpet of financial assistance. At the same time, the 2009 recession has brought about a huge increase in unemployment and an upsurge in precarity: 97% of the jobs created last year in the UK were temporary. In Germany, close to half of the new jobs are for fixed term contracts, and let’s not forget the 7 million people employed in ‘mini-jobs’ which pay 400 euros a month. In Portugal, 300,000 are working part-time. In France, 20% of students are living below the poverty line.

Grist to the extremists’ mill

According to Guy Standing, the European precariat is composed of three groups. The first of these, which has much in common with the industrial lumpen proletariat, is an often criminal minority with an appetite for violence, like the one that was visible in the August riots in London. The second group is composed of employable and educated young people, who dream of a better future, but who have hardly any chance of achieving financial independence in the current situation. These are the young people who turned out to protest in the streets of Madrid this year. But the third and most important group, is made up of marginalised older workers, who have been deprived of their social status and material security and blame foreigners for their plight.

The British economist warns that this population is a boon for extremist parties and a real danger for our current societal model. Even if they become more frequent in the coming years, Europe is not in danger from riots organised by the precariat. The real danger is the rise to power of populist anti-immigration and anti-European parties, which are supported by this growing population.

This section of the precariat is responsible for the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the True Finns in Finland and the Swedish Democrats in Sweden. As for the younger members of the precariat, their eventual politicisation will more likely result in alliances with the far left, as well as anarchist and neo-communist movements.

All of this is very bad news for Europe. Given their bungled handling of the ongoing economic crisis, we can hardly expect European leaders to effectively respond to what is an imminent social crisis, which will not be characterised by a conflict of national interests, but by a conflict of generational interests played out between young and old factions in the arena of domestic politics. Today the main goal of Europe’s aging political elites is to defend the interests of their own generation — a position that inevitably adds to the frustration experienced by the young unemployed.

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