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This socio-economic term has become more visible in recent months as a result of a book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, by Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath.

He describes the precariat as a newly emerging social class, in part created by trends towards creating a flexible workforce, which has access only to poorly paid short-term or part-time jobs, with no security of employment, support of a trade union or protection by legislation. Wages are often so little better than social security and marginal tax rates so penal that there’s little motivation to look for work. People in this situation see no prospect of change for the better and are becoming dispirited and disaffected. This is leading, he argues, to a group open to exploitation by far-right political parties.

The term is a blend of precarious and proletariat. The press attention given to Professor Standing’s book may have given the impression that he coined it. Reports in recent years have linked it with the rise of a similar class in Japan and suggested it was invented there. It has in fact been a term of left-wing writers in English at least since its appearance in the January-March 1990 issue of Socialist Review. But it was actually coined in French in the 1980s (as précariat). The abstract noun precarity for the concept is also on record; Noam Chomsky wrote in an article in the June 2011 issue of In These Times that it was coined in the 1990s by Italian labour activists.

Part of the precariat, the youthful educated part, is looking for what the book calls a politics of paradise. It is beginning to identify it in the squares of major cities, as the book did predict. Listen to the precariat in Athens, Madrid and in various parts of the Middle East.

Financial Times, 25 Jun. 2011.

In Britain, as elsewhere, labour market flexibility led to a fall in ‘unskilled’ wages and a proliferation of temporary and part-time labour. This expanded the ranks of the precariat — the emerging class of people who experience multiple forms of insecurity and see little prospect of escape.

Soundings, 1 Apr. 2011.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Jul. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 16 July 2011.