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We are the Precariat

Last month I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dame Julia Unwin for my podcast the Compassionate Leadership Interview. She spoke of the “hostile narrative” concerning poverty. This is the narrative in which the poor deserve to be poor because of their lack of application and effort, and the better off can dissociate from them with no adverse consequences.

She spoke of the responsibility that all people with a platform have to resist the spread of this fallacy. My platform is only a few hundred readers at most, but here is my contribution.

Firstly, it’s my observation that intelligence is a far more widespread commodity than the fortunate would have you believe. I come from a council estate in Rotherham, notorious as a no-go area nowadays. Yet I went to Cambridge University, studied engineering and have enjoyed a fulfilling, and well-paid career. I achieved this only through a slum clearance project which moved me across town to a better school, and a local authority school’s music programme that gave me a creative outlet and a social life away from the streets.

I was not the best in my class at primary school, but the girl and boy who generally outperformed me were a single mum who left school at 16 and a taxi driver respectively when I last heard of them.

I’d love to report that things have improved since my day, but the government’s own Social Mobility Commission, in 2019 reported that inequality is “now entrenched from birth to work.” The original members of that commission resigned in protest at government policy.

Not only does education militate against social mobility but poor nutrition, housing, and a lack of role models. A while ago I had a lodger who was a long-term unemployed woman in her late twenties. My attic was a major step up for her from an inflatable bed in the lounge of her dad’s one bedroom flat: the sofa was taken by her brother. My eldest daughter works for a charity and it is common for her clients to express a preference for staying in prison over life outside.

According to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), 30-35% of the adult population have attachment difficulties emanating from their treatment, whether neglect or maltreatment, during their first two years of life. So much for a lack of application and effort.

Let’s think about the second leg of this narrative – it’s not our problem. First, let me appeal to the capitalists among us. How are we going to prosper in a globalised economy without the most highly skilled workforce that we can build? By failing to invest in housing, in education, in health, in those elements of civil society that specialise in early intervention, we are consigning swathes of talent – our future - to low-skilled jobs or to no job at all. And this, despite the immediacy of other impacts, is the primary downside of the hostile narrative.

The impacts that I might describe as secondary are those that are more immediate and obvious: without hope of a better future, all too many young people resort to drugs and crime; without adequate housing and nutrition, the poor impose a disproportionate burden on the health service; and incivility at work grows as managers bear down on a plentiful supply of precarious labour on zero-hour contracts.

And that desperation, incivility and lack of hope fuel a growing anger and resentment, which inform a politics of disillusionment, populism, and polarisation.

‘The Precariat’ is a term popularised by the British economist Guy Standing in his 2014 book “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.” He used it to describe the growing echelon of society which, having low levels of economic and social capital, relies on a precarious living from welfare and gig work.

Incidentally, none of us are immune from joining the precariat, for example research by the University and College Union revealed a ten-fold increase in zero-hour contracts in academia between 2004 and 2014, whilst my guest on episode 11 of my podcast, Lisa Leighton, suggested that the majority of the services provided by her firm of accountants would be rendered obsolescent by technology “in five years.” The growth of the precariat explains why wages have stagnated in real terms in the UK for the past three decades.

But that isn’t my point. By “we are the precariat” I mean that the new and growing underclass threatens the civilised discourse, community spirit, and economic wellbeing of the society in which we live. It is frankly impossible to separate ‘our’ future from ‘theirs.’ We either prosper together or we descend into dystopia together.

We are one and the same. No amount of private education, private healthcare and private security can change that fact. This is not a class war but a challenge to our collective ability to collaborate in the face of a wicked problem. The rhetoric of both the Daily Mail and The Socialist Worker are equally unhelpful.

Which is why at every turn we should champion a basic income, those elements of civil society providing early intervention services, and decent housing and education for all. The return from these investments in our nation’s future far outweigh the dubious benefits of HS2 and other glamour projects.

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