Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times

As insecurity increasingly defines work, Rosalind Gill glimpses the emerging global 'precariat'

March 4, 2010

Quietly, almost unnoticed, an entire greetings card industry has emerged in recent years devoted to workplace stress. Filed under "humour", the cards declare variously: "Happiness is an empty inbox"; "Nothing beats the satisfaction of crossing things off lists"; and "I'm too busy to have the nervous breakdown I deserve". They speak to the intensification of work and the constant stress experienced by increasing numbers of workers, accentuated by mobile information and communication technologies that make it not just possible but normatively required to be "always on", as Melissa Gregg has put it. I've not yet seen any greetings cards devoted to precariousness, but that is surely one of the other defining features of the contemporary landscape of work. If such cards existed they might say "Good luck in your portfolio career!" or "Flexibility goes a long way" and express sentiments that wished people good fortune in managing working lives characterised by short-term, contingent contracts and anxieties about preparing for an uncertain future.

Academics are no strangers to these experiences, and these are beginning to be discussed in the pages of Times Higher Education, particularly since the launch of the regular blog by the Insecure Scholar - although posts that describe him as a "whinger" suggest a disturbing reluctance to face up to the wholesale transformation of the academic labour market in recent years. In fact, as Andrew Ross points out in this important book, academia is the fastest-growing example of the casualisation of the US job market, with two thirds of the teaching workforce on short-term temporary contracts.

Britain is not far behind, with a raft of newly minted "teaching fellowships" and the proliferation of short-term, part-time teaching positions, contracted on an hourly paid basis, in which PhD students or new postdocs are charged with delivering mass undergraduate programmes, with little training, inadequate support and rates of pay that can make cleaning and catering work seem like attractive options. Young and "early career" academics (a designation that can nowadays last across one's entire career) may become emblematic of the newly emerging global "precariat" that Ross discusses.

Ross argues that the past three decades of deregulation and privatisation have "reshaped the geography of livelihoods of almost everyone in the industrialised world and a large slice of the population in developing countries". Few people can expect a single career around which they can narrate a meaningful biography, and increasingly we are called on to prepare for a lifetime of change, mobility and constant updating of skills so we can compete in a fast-changing market. Ross is interested in exploring the determinants, consequences and political possibilities of this shift through a number of different case studies including academics, creatives and the workers Sabine Hess has dubbed "the ground staff of globalisation" - the sweatshop employees and migrants "in a running battle with agents of repressive border policies, unfair labour regulation, detention camps and deportation".

He is especially interested in artists and creative workers. Enterprising, self-sacrificing, with an ethos of aesthetic (and self) perfectibility and tolerance for feast-and-famine working patterns, they have become the "new model workers" for high-risk, high-reward employment. Ross connects this to the "mercurial career" of creative industries policy, which posits creativity as the oil of the 21st century, as well as a panacea for societal ills including poor health, crime and social exclusion. His vision is wide and he traces shifts in the UK, Europe and the US, devoting an entire chapter to China's aspiration for the slogan "created in China" to sit alongside, or even displace, the more familiar but disparaged "made in China".

Ross is one of the pre-eminent thinkers and cultural analysts of his generation. His voice is a principled and critical one that is informed by a commitment to social justice. He is wary of orthodoxies - seen, for example, in his insistence that we must understand the contemporary transformations of work in terms of both the economic liberalisation driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organisation and the demands of workers themselves for flexibility, autonomy and non-alienating work. His writing also stands out for its courage in defending a notion of regulation, and in arguing that we have some responsibility to specify the content of what "good work" may look like.

In an academic field characterised largely by scholars who end their analyses with critique and deconstruction of the status quo, Ross pushes us towards the work of "reconstruction" - it's as if he's saying, "OK, we know this is unfair and exploitative - so what do we want instead?" Above all, though, Nice Work If You Can Get It is impressive for its extraordinary range and sweep, and for asking questions about the kinds of transnational and cross-class alliances that could be made, the kinds of solidarities that could be forged between differently positioned members of the global "precariat": sweatshop labourers, janitors, academics and creatives. In doing so it offers a passionate, humane critique of contemporary capitalism.

Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times

By Andrew Ross

New York University Press

254pp, £17.99

ISBN 9780814776292

Published 13 May 2009

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