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

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

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

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


2009 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Is job insecurity the new norm? With fewer and fewer people working in steady, long-term positions for one employer, has the dream of a secure job with full benefits and a decent salary become just that- a dream?

In Nice Work If You Can Get It , Andrew Ross surveys the new topography of the global workplace and finds an emerging pattern of labor instability and uneven development on a massive scale. Combining detailed case studies with lucid analysis and graphic prose, he looks at what the new landscape of contingent employment means for workers across national, class, and racial lines- from the emerging "creative class" of high-wage professionals to the multitudes of temporary, migrant, or low-wage workers. Developing the idea of "precarious livelihoods" to describe this new world of work and life, Ross explores what it means in developed nations- comparing the creative industry policies of the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union, as well as developing countries- by examining the quickfire transformation of China's labor market. He also responds to the challenge of sustainability, assessing the promise of "green jobs" through restorative alliances between labor advocates and environmentalists.

Ross argues that regardless of one's views on labor rights, globalization, and quality of life, this new precarious and "indefinite life," and the pitfalls and opportunities that accompany it is likely here to stay and must be addressed in a systematic way. A more equitable kind of knowledge society emerges in these pages- less skewed toward flexploitation and the speculative beneficiaries of intellectual property, and more in tune with ideals and practices that are fair, just, and renewable.


The need to make a living has always set people in motion—of the land, into the towns and cities, over the seas. Most have been fleeing oppressive forms of work—chattel slavery, serfdom, indenture, guild dependence, patriarchal servitude, routine wage labor—in search of a more free and humane life. Employers have had little choice but to follow them or try to restrict their mobility to select population centers in hopes of capturing their labor (Moulier Boutang 1998, 2001). in the modern era, mass migration to cities and manufacturing zones was and still is a monumental geographical process, disrupting or reinventing ways of life and fabricating the vast new urban spaces where one half of the world's population currently ekes out a livelihood. Yet these patterns of flight, capture, and escape have ensured that no destination would remain fixed for too long.

Nor has the restless and voracious spirit of capital delivered much in the way of stability. Industrial employers in the United States, for example, began to move from urban to greenfield locations as early as the 1920s, primarily to escape the threat of concentrated union power (Gordon 1978). Their opportunistic moves helped stimulate the mass suburbanization of the 1940s and 1950s (postwar employers did not “follow” the newly suburbanizing masses, as is often assumed), just as they prefigured the flight of manufacturers in the mid-1970s to the U.S. South and then, later, to the global South. As a result, the mass of African Americans (just to cite one highly visible population) who sought relief from Jim Crow in northern cities in the 1920s saw their children and grandchildren abandoned only fifty years later to joblessness and society's neglect.

The last three decades of deregulation and privatization have reshaped the geography of livelihoods for almost everyone in the industrialized world, and for a large slice of the population in developing countries. On the landscape of work, there is less and less terra firma (Beck 2000; Castel 2002; Bowe, Bowe, and Streeter 2000; Sennett 1998). Today's livelihoods are pursued on economic ground that shifts rapidly underfoot, and many of our old assumptions about how people can make . . .

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