Precariat: New and Troubling Word
I was reading a favorite periodical when I spotted the headline with a word that I don’t think I had ever seen. The headline read: “The ‘Precariat:’ stressed out, insecure, alienated and angry.” I’m not sure I had ever seen “precariat.” I could guess what it meant. The opening line of the article assured me I knew its meaning.
“Inequality. Class fragmentation. Social and economic exclusion.” Those words paint an unfortunate picture. And that’s just the point. The author of the article, Vinnie Rotondaro, is writing about the world’s large and growing group of people living precarious lives right above the poverty line. This clearly does not include me; I have been very fortunate. But that only means that I need to know about this sad phenomenon and see it for the spiritual issue it is, alongside being an economic and political issue.
The author makes use of much of the scholarly work being done by Guy Standing, a British economist, who is Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His work is new to me and pretty impressive. Standing suggests there is a new “emerging social class” that is “defining the new normal in societies across the world” and that class he calls the precariat.
Standing elaborates in a helpful fashion. “The lives of people in the precariat are defined by precariousness, or ‘precarity,’ he says. They experience pervasive economic insecurity and uncertainty, inconsistent work and labor relations, and increasingly, a lack of control over time.” As I read this, I am aware I know many people whose lives are characterized by this kind of precarity. I don’t see them in my sphere of work. I see them on the margin of my work.
I see them sometimes at McDonald’s when I stop for coffee. I overhear tidbits of their lives that suggest way more precariousness than I have to experience. Many folks have that kind of economic security. They remind me of the migrants who descended on tomato fields in my boyhood Indiana. They also were marginal to my normal world. While they were not on my farm---we did not have tomatoes---they were on the edges of my town and my life. And then, they were gone---often on north to Michigan to pick fruit in the autumn.
And so I realize I have been exposed to precarity all my life. Apparently those numbers are growing very fast. And I don’t doubt it. And they are going to affect the world much more than those migrants ever affected my life. Standing estimates that the number in this group in many countries is approaching 405---that is countries like Spain and Italy.
The new awareness that I bring to this is an awareness I did not have in my youthful Indiana days. That awareness is that precarity is also a spiritual issue. I realize this can be subtle, since the economic and political facets are usually much more visible. But it is also spiritual. Let’s develop this a little bit.
A key component of spiritual is the inherent dignity and worth of an individual. For those of us who grew up in the Jewish and Christian traditions, this inherent dignity and worth of human beings is grounded in the very creation story of Genesis. Adam---and all human beings---is created in the image and likeness of the Holy One. We are icons of the Divinity Itself.
We are called “very good” at our creation. Many of us who have children know this creative pride when we see the ones we bring into the world. No sane parent looks at his or her little one and thinks, “What a piece of worthless junk!” No parent wants his or her child to grow up in a situation of precarity---on the edge and brink of all kinds of disasters. We know we are vulnerable, but no one wants someone else to be hurt.
But that’s exactly what seems to be happening around our globe. Our way of living is causing countless others to the margin. The way the world is functioning puts people in precarious ways of living. When I see this as a spiritual issue, it means I have to find a way to care. Caring is the easiest form of love. If you can’t care, there is no love in your heart.
So if I claim to be spiritual, then I am on the hook to care. And if I care, then I necessarily have to find a way to share. Caring and sharing are bedrock spiritual ways of living in our world. Of course, they are very general statements. Each one of us has to find specific and particular ways to express the caring and sharing. I am not part of the plutocracy---the .0001% who own a huge portion of the world’s wealth. I can’t do it their way.
I probably don’t have enough money to share in a way that makes much difference except for a very few individuals. But I can work to change the situation. And I can join others to make a bigger difference. This is a ministry I willingly take on.