In the wilderness, comfort and sustenance often elude people: we are materially unanchored and must rely on personal or communal resilience and resourcefulness to survive. A wilderness can feel barren. But wildernesses can also hold potential for growth and change. In many spiritual traditions, the wilderness is where people find themselves or their purpose, organise outside of oppressive ‘secure’ territories, and/or to birth new movements and ways of being. Examples include: Mohammed (PBUH)’s retreat to caves, where he received the Quran; Jesus’ retreat to the wilderness and mountainsides to pray both before and during his ministry; John the Baptist as a prophetic voice crying out in the desert, making way for a new movement; Moses receiving the ten commandments on a mountain, in the wilderness. Wilderness contains the potential to fuel revolutions of human thought and organisation. This article explores wildernesses experienced by those in the ‘precariat class’, of which I am a member, and argues for greater acknowledgement of our unity and potential to transform our territory.
The word ‘precariat’ is forged from ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’ to describe a growing class of people living in conditions of financial and social precarity/insecurity. Precariats are a mixture of underemployed, insecurely employed, unemployed, excluded from the workforce, casual workers, and low paid workers. Unlike the traditional working class, precariats do not (yet) have a sense of class unity or organisation. The precariat class includes: people with no qualifications working zero-hour contracts in the service industries; graduates (mainly from working class backgrounds) getting by on benefits and/or freelance work; disabled people who have been pushed out of the workforce because they are not able to produce work consistently enough for businesses to profit; part-time, low-paid workers; those who volunteer for community groups, or care for children and elderly relatives full-time; and those who occupy more than one of these groups. Often, precariat sub-groups don’t mix socially, are geographically dispersed, and might have diverse political views (or lack of). But nevertheless they inhabit many of the same wildernesses, which I will explore in this article.
Western culture is filled with messages that the more productive and/or materially wealthy a person the greater their worth. This can create a sense of helplessness, worthlessness, anger, and fear among the precariat who are often underemployed, underpaid/unpaid, in material poverty, and unable to find a way out. But early humans were in a near-constant state of precarity. It was here, in this precarious wilderness, that some of the greatest leaps in human evolution took place. If precarity was once the mother of invention, then what of the precariat? Rather than a ‘dangerous’ class, as suggested by Guy Standing, might precariats be prophets and innovators? The shadow selves of some precariats have led them to follow ‘false-prophets’ such as nationalism and militarism. But what if precariats acknowledged their unique power and worth as a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness? A voice for life-giving innovation and pro-social change? By firstly identifying the common wilderness of precariats we can begin to see what threatens us, and what we can do about it.
Precarity evokes both personal and social wildernesses. The most obvious wilderness that the precariat experience is financial. When we try to make ends meet between pay checks or benefits payments and amid employer or DWP inefficiency or benefit sanctions, we experience periods of nil income. These are the times we go without food and/or fuel, feed our children and elderly before ourselves, rely on food banks or friends to sustain us, borrow money from others (often themselves precariats – putting strain on relationships), steal food from work or supermarket chains, or take out pay day loans. Most of these I have done myself, and have seen others do – this is not just a good guess. We find ways to keep ourselves and our loved ones afloat in a sea of insecurity. We have fallen between the cracks and been pushed outside of ‘secure’ territories. Sometimes this is literal: we become homeless because of defaults on rent or bills. Sometimes it is psychological: we experience existential or emotional insecurity. This is especially the case for people who were raised to expect some level of security by observing the lives of their parents and grandparents.
Younger people from traditional working class backgrounds increasingly grow up into a double wilderness: they do not have the cultural knowledge, social capital, or confidence to enter traditionally middle class graduate occupations, but the working class occupations of their parents have been devalued by zero-hours contracts, insecurity, lack of paid apprenticeships, and alluring (but devaluing and unrealistic) promises of “social mobility”. At the opposite end of the scale, previously working class occupations now require college or university training which is incredibly expensive to obtain. Additionally, an increasing number of working class young people have degrees and thus are considered ‘overqualified’ when they attempt to secure employment in the professions of their parents. For example, it is very difficult to get a job in a supermarket with a degree on your CV. But those with traditional working class backgrounds (and, indeed, lower middle class backgrounds) are raised to consider occupation an ‘existentially significant’ identity. When conditioned to equate who you are with what you “do” and what you “do” doesn’t fit the templates you were raised with, it is difficult to know who you are. Existential wilderness is a very uncomfortable place emotionally and it can create intolerable levels of stress and frustration.
When people experience the stress of existential wilderness, they respond to it in a multitude of ways. Some simply struggle – between insecure part-time jobs and odd-jobs, unsure of their income more than a few weeks in advance, or else subsisting on zero hour contracts and/or benefits. Some will seek to gain the cultural knowledge to one day break through into a traditional occupation but ultimately cannot give up their low-paid work to find better-paid work, get voluntary experience, or re-train. Others become angry and disengaged – using this energy either to fight for social reform or else to blame the nearest scapegoat – such as white British people blaming “immigrants”. Many become ill in body or mind.
Those who are long-term sick and disabled people are an ever-expanding precariat group. Insecure, low-paid conditions are making sick people sicker, rendering disabled people less able to work when pay is not high enough to cover disability costs, and are disabling previously abled people. This creates an expanding group of people who rely on welfare benefits because they are not able to engage with the type of work available to them. Benefits for disabled and chronically ill people are also increasingly insecure: most people are reassessed for benefit eligibility yearly and are under constant threat of their income being removed if they are not able to adequately jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove they are “sick enough”. Most private landlords will not accept people on unemployment benefits, including disabled people, and social housing is scarce. The ultimate outcome for many of this group is further decline in health and, sometimes, death. The wilderness of those on disability benefits is often one of isolation, loneliness, and feeling unfulfilled.
For many who are unemployed, underemployed, or struggling with unseen financial burdens, the wilderness of isolation results in a chronic lack of affection and camaraderie. Precariats do not receive positive feedback from our surrounding culture about our value or worth – which can create a feeling of rejection and isolation. This can can lead to anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, stress, and so much more. The precariat is not the only class group to feel these things – traditional working class folk and middle class people might experience these emotions for different reasons. But with lack of time and/or resources to engage with community or raise a family, or a lack of workplace contact, the precariat class is at particular risk of not having their needs for human contact, joint industry, and affection met.
The existence of the growing precariat class also has major implications for society as a whole. The number of graduates who have taken out government loans to pay for education and then remain in/enter the precariat class means that those loans will never be paid back. It also means that people with a high level of ability are not contributing in a way which is concurrent with their abilities – a loss to the progress of society and culture. There are not enough people filling traditional working class roles due to their chronic monetary and cultural devaluation. Those who end up in these (ever scarcer) jobs often feel angry, undervalued, and stressed by having to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet, and/or are immigrant workers exploited for extremely low wages because they have no other choice i.e. no access to welfare benefits. All of these social ‘gaps’ deepen a sense of wilderness surrounding the precariat class.
Since precarity is going nowhere fast, how can precariats effectively deal with chronic stress and enter a place of prophecy, innovation, and pro-social challenge to the status quo? How do we resist blaming the nearest easy scapegoat? The most common precariat scapegoats – immigrants, millennials, disabled people – are often members of the precariat class themselves; we need solidarity between sub-groups of precariat, not hostility. Precariats are disenfranchised by materially wealthier classes and have the lowest amount of time, energy, social capital or resources to challenge government or big business policies which oppress and exploit us. Although holding the government and big business to account would be an appropriate target for our anger, it is not always achievable for everybody in our class group – so we need a more holistic and multi-pronged approach.
Firstly, we find new, affirmative ways to talk about our precarious lives. One way to do this is to validate each other’s occupations. Even if that occupation is to stay alive. Even if it is claiming benefits and doing cash in hand work on the side. Even if it is working four jobs which are not deemed culturally valuable. Even if it is raising our children or caring for our old or ill people. We defiantly describe ourselves as hard working, which so many of us are. We find new words for what we “do” – even if what we do is unpaid, sporadic, or underpaid – to retain a sense of existential identity. We speak our truths without shame. We challenge those who suggest that security makes one’s life more meaningful than precarity; we stress the innovation we use in order to feed, clothe, and entertain ourselves. We don’t ‘roll over’ to untenable situations or fail to challenge a system which keeps so many in poverty, but we do hold our industry up to the light – as valuable and worthy. We describe our unpaid unemployment activities as work. We continue to uphold each other’s labour as worthy and we unite in refusal of the narrative that some occupations and people are worth more than others. Without some industry people cannot sustain their lives – anybody who would counter this by saying that claiming benefits is not ‘work’ have not been through the benefits system lately.
Secondly, we need to fight for community spaces, or create them here in the wilderness. In each others’ homes, church halls, libraries, community centres, we can organise ourselves to create ‘office space’ for those doing freelance or unpaid work. These spaces will allow otherwise isolated workers to be around others, connect, and get their need for affection and camaraderie met. Those working multiple jobs could benefit from having a free meal cooked for them once a week – thus reducing financial and occupational burdens and social isolation. Those subsisting on benefits could benefit from a free meal to maintain nutritional and social well-being. Those who feel underemployed could organise to cook for others who are overemployed or unable. Freelancers and sporadic workers could use time between jobs to fundraise the food money, or to enlist the sponsorship of socially conscious wealthier folk. Innovating in the wilderness makes sure that we care for each others’ and our own needs so that we can continue to survive outside of secure territories. Part of this survival is to establish a firm basis of human contact, affection, and nourishment for each other – separately from traditional work spaces – so that isolated people do not fall through the cracks. We are unique in the diversity of our levels of time and energy to create these environments and can use this to our advantage.
Thirdly, unfair wages and poor working conditions are a public health issue. We need to keep saying this at every level of society, especially when dealing with those who remain in secure territories. If we have the time and energy to sit on patient boards at GP surgeries/hospitals then we can raise it here; we can write to our MP, no matter how hasty or time-pressured the email, as long as it states the basic idea; if we are writers then we write about it; we can broadcast the realities of precariat life online to as broad or narrow an audience as we like, anonymously if we like; we can scrawl it on a t-shirt in permanent ink and wear it to our places of worship or in the pub. Additionally, we can request wages from charities and the third sector for our unpaid work; we can join local campaigns for a universal income, the living wage, and/or for paid apprenticeships; and if we don’t have time or energy for any of this, then we can hopefully rely on others of our class, other wilderness wanderers, to help us out.
Finally, we can support young people from working class backgrounds who are increasingly entering the precariat class.We can stop pressurising young people to live up to the standards of yesterday and accept that it is increasingly difficult for young people from working class backgrounds to live in ‘secure’ territory. We make the wilderness feel as secure as possible. A sense of pride in one’s own life and a feeling of connection with others is vital to health and happiness and will help young people to continue striving for vocational and existential goals, even when they are not being valued by wider culture. If we can instil a sense of existential security in our precariat young people, no matter what they end up “doing”, then we might save them years of stress, health issues, and anxiety. If we can be equally proud of our seasonal workers, freelancers, unpaid community workers, unpaid street sweepers, part-time care workers, zero-hours Asda workers, occasional performers, recreational dancers, readers, music enthusiasts, disabled self-care extraordinaires, odd-jobbers, and prolific dreamers, as we are of our electricians, builders, and secretaries, then this will go a long way to ensuring the future health of the precariat class. This isn’t to say we give up on campaigning for better wages and job and welfare security, but it is to be realistic about protecting the well being of future generations in the current climate.
We can be prophariats in the wilderness – prophets and innovators from the precariat class who, in not being secure, threaten security. The threat will not be via violent revolution, nor voting for nationalist leaders, but by embracing the facts of our lives and surviving, together; by claiming our wilderness territories as homes in which we eat, connect, and flourish, in the face of all that would threaten our survival. Dogged determination to support each other’s right to life even if we do not dance to the tune of the exploitative class’s song might one day shut down their club. Then we will be the ‘secure’ ones: innovative in the face of precarity and ready to take humanity forward into a new evolutionary era where nobody is pushed out, devalued, or left behind.