In 2011, Guy Standing wrote a book called The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. The book introduces a new emerging social class, which he calls “the precariats”. The term is derived by merging two words – ‘precarious’ with ‘proletariat’.
The proletariat refers to the working class and/or the wage earners, and precarious (in this case) refers to “the growing number of people around the world living and working precariously, usually in a series of short-term jobs, without recourse to stable occupational identities or careers, stable social protection or protective regulations relevant to them. They include migrants, but also locals.”
Standing warns that this new and fast-growing class of people could produce another layer of instability in a world that is already facing rapid change. Buffered by a blur of new technologies – such as digitisation, robotics and artificial intelligence – that are fast destroying people’s jobs, as well as a sluggish global economy that has yet to recover from the 2008 Great Recession, you have a perfect “precarious” storm brewing. Add to that rapidly shifting social norms like gender fluidity and the legalisation of recreational marijuana and it is easy to see why many people are terrified and confused by this new world order.
Everything, from politics to business to the sociocultural landscape, is shifting like Teutonic plates grinding and colliding against each other. People do not like change, and change on this scale is more than unsettling.
Standing writes that the precariats “are increasingly frustrated and dangerous because they have no voice, and hence they are vulnerable to the siren calls of extreme political parties”.
In 2016, this warning has become prophetic. In US politics, Donald Trump is the manifestation of this warning. In Europe, most leaders face a rising right-wing political voice that is buoyed by anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric, as 8 million displaced Syrian refugees scramble for a safe haven. Here in South Africa, we see the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters as Julius Malema resonates more and more with a frustrated and disenfranchised people. We have joined the tribe: we, too, are the precariats.
I read with interest a Time magazine article that tracked the rise of Trump. The writer pointed out that voters today no longer wanted to hear a politician say, “I feel your pain.” They would prefer to listen to someone who can “mirror my mood”.
In business, retailers and brands have had to learn to adapt to a similar consumer mind-set. They have had to become transparent as well as walk the talk. Eco credentials and corporate social investment policies can no longer be trotted out as a badge of honour or a marketing campaign: those values are now considered fundamental, and if they cannot mirror the value systems of their customers, they cannot expect any brand loyalty in return.
The same applies to the recruitment and retention of a workforce, specifically for young millennials. A corporate also needs to walk the talk and show commitment to a set of core values. If not, it is reflected in the quick turnover of staff.
A blinkered obsession with the bottom line is no longer what makes that company great: creating positive change does. This is playing out in the US, where large corporations are pushing back against proposed “religious freedom bills”, which in essence give individuals and businesses with moral objections legal cover to deny services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. After a similar bill was passed last year in Indiana, jobs were relocated to another state, conferences were cancelled, as were sporting events and film shoots. Indianapolis lost an estimated $60 million (R865 million) in economic activity.
Political strategist Doug Hattaway says that “more and more businesses these days are becoming value driven, rather than sales driven”.
The spillover into the political arena is a natural and logical one. During a Midwest primary in the US, a voter was asked why he was supporting as controversial a figure as Trump. His answer was telling. He said that he was well aware that the man was flawed, but it was time to try something different. Distrust of the traditional political machinery of Washington was so great that taking a risk on an imperfect candidate was better than being fed the same old platitudes, such as “I feel your pain.”
Trump is skilled at “mirroring the mood” – as is Malema.
Now that the ruling party and the two main opposition parties have launched their election manifestos iIt will be interesting to see who best “mirrors the mood” of South Africa. Never before has a nation been this unsettled, but also this attentive and , where we are open to trying something different. We are the precariats, and we are listening.
Chang is a trend analyst and the founder of Flux Trends