Precarious work: Understanding the new employment relations

Precarious work: Understanding the new employment relations

Arne L Kalleberg and Steven Vallas

Profound changes in work have had deep impacts on workers and their families throughout the world.  Much of this concern has centered on the rise of precarious work, or work that is uncertain, insecure and in which risks are shifted from employers and governments to workers. Notable examples of precarious work include temporary and contract work as well as the jobs in the “gig” or sharing economy.  Precarious work has made the availability as well as the quality of jobs more risky and uncertain.  It has also negatively influenced individuals’ health and well being and their ability to form families, as well as leading to community disintegration.  Moreover, the anxiety and anger produced by the spread of uncertainty, insecurity and inequality associated with precarious work have contributed to social protests and fueled populist movements in Europe and the United States.

Despite its importance, there are many things about precarious work and its consequences that we don’t know about.  The papers which we edited in the latest volume of the series Research in the Sociology of Work, entitled Precarious Work,  address many of the limitations of research on this topic.  They cover discussions of: original theory and research on precarious work in various parts of the world, identifying its social, political, and economic origins, its manifestations in the USA, Europe, Asia, and the Global South; racial and gender differences in exposure to precarious work; its consequences for personal and family life; and  the policy alternatives that might protect workers from undue risk. Here, we briefly describe how this research and scholarship speaks to a number of important issues related to precarious work.

Explaining Precarious Work
The recent rise of precarious work results from broad trends due to globalization, rapid technological change, the decline of the power of workers in favor of employers, and the spread of neoliberal political and economic doctrines that equate markets with human freedom and oppose all collective arrangements that might interfere with market forces.  These changes have pressured countries to uproot their provisions for income supports, weaken labor regulations and minimum wage standards, and foster decentralized forms of collective bargaining, all of which leave workers more dependent on employers (see Pulignano).  This trend toward precarious work has engulfed virtually all advanced capitalist nations, but unevenly so, while countries in the Global South continue to experience precarious conditions of work.

While economic crises such as the Great Recession may have exacerbated the impacts of these drivers of precarious work, as Wallace and Kwak demonstrate for the U.S., these forces have been gathering for some decades, and now show little sign of slowing down.  Mindful of the stakes, there has been an outpouring of scholarly research on precarious work. Yet our ability to understand this phenomenon has remained limited in several important respects.  Carefully calibrated and disaggregated measures of precarious work are needed (see Kiersztyn), as are studies of how precarious work is classified (e.g., Gibson-Light).

A central task of comparative research is that of identifying the socio-political dynamics and coalitions that give rise to national-level responses to neoliberalism (as Mai does in his analysis of cross-national differences in precarious work in 32 European countries.  Rogan et al. show that while informal employment in the global south is still the norm, there are still important shifts in employment relations that result from the same processes of globalization and liberalization which have generated precarious work in the more developed countries.  In addition, Sapkal and Shyam Sundar demonstrate that there is considerable variation in the extent of precarious work in India, a country in which the vast majority of people work in the informal economy. They also show the growing pressure on the Indian state to adopt policies that would make precarious work an even more pronounced feature of the Indian economy.

Consequences of Precarious Work
Precarious work makes it difficult to construct a rational life plan or career narrative in post-industrial nations.  The ability to construct such a life plan is a key source of happiness and subjective well-being and its absence a source of stress and numerous other well documented negative consequences for mental and physical health.

We need to understand how precarious work affects peoples’ careers and labor market experiences and Witteveen shows how instability influences the career pathways of people entering the labor market.  He shows that women, racial-ethnic minorities, and lower social class labor market entrants are significantly more likely to be exposed to the most precarious early careers.  Branch and Hanley illustrate how gender and race combine to affect the exposure to non-standard employment over time. Recall too that the evidence we alluded to earlier has repeatedly found that precarization has unfolded unevenly across the gender line, disrupting long-established gender hierarchies in ways that warrant careful analysis.   Williams shows how hostility toward women even in relatively good jobs in the oil and gas industry negatively affects women during downsizing and business reorganizations. Her study finds evidence that the gendered organization still exists, though in relatively novel incarnations.  Research by Rao explores how elite early-career contract workers in the United Nations (UN) system accept uncertain and short-term contracts so as to demonstrate their flexibility to their employers and thus hope to secure longer-term positions within the UN system.

Precarious work also influences family formation.  Lim shows that men who work in part-time jobs and jobs that lack health insurance coverage and pension benefits are 20-25 percent more likely to delay a first marriage.  As in Japan, working in bad jobs matters more for men, though women in part-time nonstandard jobs also experience marriage delays.

Several studies illustrate how governments have responded to the growth of precarious work.  Zukin and Papadantonakis show how business corporations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations in the software industry manufacture workers’ consent by sponsoring “hackathons” that serve to reshape precarious and upaid work as an extraordinary opportunity. Their study is important since it reveals the political functions that occupational identity has increasingly assumed in an era of rapid change and uncertainty in the economic landscape.   Given the pressure of neoliberalism, some European countries have begun to adopt more restrictive levels of support for the unemployed (as in the case of Germany; see Brady and Biegart), though few European governments exhibit the punitive conception of relief-giving as the US has tended to do.

Such research needs to pay attention to the success of policies in three general areas that are needed in order to tackle the issues associated with precarious work.  Kalleberg and Vallas maintain that policies have to maintain flexibility for employers, yet still provide individuals with: a safety net and various kinds of social protections to collectivize risk and help them cope with the uncertainty and insecurity associated with precarious work and the marketization trend and secondly systems of lifelong education and retraining in order to prepare people for the changes that will occur in their jobs and in the labor market more generally; and (3) social labor regulations and laws that protect those in both regular and non-regular employment.

There is little reason to believe that the forces that drove the recent rise of precarious work will abate anytime soon. Globalization and dynamic technological change are inexorable forces characterizing the 21st century. However, the political, economic and social responses to these forces are not inevitable. Just as the adoption of neoliberal policies that fueled the expansion of precarious work resulted from political forces that shifted the balance of power from workers to employers, so too will political forces shape the future reactions of industrial countries as they face the moral choices associated with the negative consequences of precarious work. The centrality of work to human existence means that how social institutions respond to the growth of precarious work will have profound impacts on individuals, families and societies.  Hence, social scientists have great opportunities—and challenges—to understand the nature of the new employment relations that are being created and their implications for individual and societal well-being.


Arne L. Kalleberg is Kenan Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is Editor of Social Forces and a former President of the American Sociological Association. Steven Vallas is Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University.

Image: War on Want at the TUC. CC-BY-2.0