Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Feeling Precarious: Millennial Women and Work

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Feeling Precarious: Millennial Women and Work

Article excerpt


In Precarious Life (2004), Judith Butler writes about how a shared sense of fear and vulnerability opens the possibility of recognizing interdependency. This is a wider understanding of precarity than is often present in human geography--recognizing the consequences and possibilities of feeling precarious. Focusing on work and the workplace, I examine the working life stories of millennial women in Canada, a labour market where unemployment and underemployment are common experiences for young workers. Using work narratives of insecurity, I argue that one potential consequence of understanding precariousness is the recognition of our social selves, using millennial women's stories of mutual reliance and connection with parents, partners and friends to contrast assumptions of the individualizing, neoliberal, Gen Y worker. I use a feminist understanding of agency and autonomy to argue that young women's stories about work are anything but individual experiences of flexibility or precarity--instead, I explain how relationships play a critical role in worker agency and whether work feels flexible or precarious. Overall I consider what a feminist theorizing of interdependence and precariousness offers geography, emphasizing the importance of subjectivity and relationality.


Precariousness, relational autonomy, work, gender, millennial generation, Canada


At a recent AAG session on the Kilburn Manifesto, Doreen Massey mentioned that young people have only ever known neoliberalism--they have grown up and entered the workforce in neoliberal times. For the millennial generation in Canada (roughly born between 1980 and 1995), many have entered the world of work in a time of economic austerity. In practice, this means a high unemployment rate for young people, and a high rate of underemployment for young adults (Bernard, 2013). While a variety of actors have drawn attention to the consequences of 'employment scarring' for young people (where unemployment is linked to further unemployment and lower wages in the future) (Arulampalam et al., 2001; Quinn, 2014), much less is known about the employment experiences of older millennials, who are now 24-34, as this period of young adulthood is often folded into broader age categories in national statistics. There is also a gendered story for millennials in Canada, where young women still experience a gender pay gap, and make up a larger proportion of part-time and contract workers. Just like other age groups, millennial women do more unpaid work than men, and there are specific challenges for women around when and if to have children, what researchers have called the 'mother load' (Villalobos, 2014).

Rather than to evaluate how much the labour market for young adults has changed over a generation, including the shift to more jobs that are contract and part-time, this article investigates the affective and social consequences of work, and in particular how young women understand the place of work in their own lives. Recent work in labour geography has called for greater research on the subjective experiences of workers as part of understanding their agency (Coe and Jordhus-Lier, 2011; Lier, 2007) and this article brings a social geographer's lens to this aim (see also Rogaly, 2009). McDowell's (2007, 2007; Hardgrove et al., 2015b; McDowell et al., 2014) ongoing concern with work identities has been invaluable to the framing of this research, interrogating the intersection of social categories of difference including age and gender at work.

This article aims to make two contributions to feminist economic geography: First, while previous research has dealt with economic precarity (Kern, 2012; Lewis et al., 2015; Vosko and Clark, 2009), it has had less to say about the related, subjective experience of precariousness (although see Neilson and Rossiter, 2008 for the political possibilities of precarity). …

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