Precariat: “People whose lives are precarious because they have little or no job security.” (Source: Word Spy.) A portmanteau of precarious and proletariat.
Precariat was first used in Europe in the late 1980s to describe “predominantly nonunionized clerical and service employees, the partially employed, and the unemployed” (Socialist Review: Volume 20). In 2011, the British economist Guy Standing (his actual title: professor of economic security at the University of Bath, England) made it the subject of his book The Precariat: The Dangerous New Class. In the first chapter, Standing describes the growth of the precariat as a result of globalization:
Millions of people, in affluent and emerging market economies, entered the precariat, a new phenomenon even if it had shades of the past. The precariat was not part of the ‘working class’ or the ‘proletariat’. The latter terms suggest a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionisation and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.
The term has crossed the Atlantic. New York Times columnist David Brooks used it in a February 11, 2014, op-ed:
Thirty years ago, a vast majority of Americans identified as members of the middle class. But since 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled. Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.
These pessimistic views bring to mind a concept that’s been floating around Europe: the Precariat. According to the British academic Guy Standing, the Precariat is the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.” They live with multiple forms of insecurity and are liable to join protest movements across the political spectrum.
One of precariat’s source words, “precarious,” entered the English lexicon around 1640, when it was a legal term meaning “held or enjoyed by the favor of and at the pleasure of another person.” A French Catholic monk, Léonce Crenier (1888-1963), promoted a theological concept he called “precarity”—a condition of existence without predicability; the term was adopted in the early 1950s by the American Catholic activist Dorothy Day.
Proletariat was back-formed from proletarian—“a member of the lowest class” (the meaning of proletarius in Latin)—which had entered English in the mid-17th century. Proletariat took another 200 years to appear; in 1856, it came to mean “indigent wage earners.” Karl Marx used it to describe wage-earners whose only source of wealth is their labor.
The precariat has a patron saint, San Precario, created in February 2004 by Italian “post-socialists.” The feast day of San Precario is February 29.
Effigy of San Precario, 2006 EuroMayDay parade.