I have written before about becoming a member of the precariat, that new class of people who lack the full security and rights of those with 'proper' jobs. Many of us are job-insecure. We work part time, or temp, or seasonally. We may have near zero hour contracts and are expected to be on call all the time. We stick jobs together. We work for cash. We exist the the mauve or grey economies, selling from catalogues or at markets, or just plain hustling. My daughter and her partner live like this - all their work is insecure, they pay taxes, yet they have fewer civil rights in the country where they live. They cannot vote, having lived away from New Zealand for too long but having no voting rights in the country where they have lived and worked for five years. In classical Athens, there were citizens and denizens. Many of us are now denizens.
For some time I lived almost off grid, working for cash only and learning the fun things about life among the denizens.I found I could use my skills in the grey economy and I learned fast. Later, I attempted to get onto welfare. I have written about this before, in my post Obligation Failure, about the welfare system.
Being established on welfare was a big relief, but my situation threw up its own peculiarities. I was deemed by my case manager to be unemployable. This would put stress on her. She would struggle to account for how an educated, skilled middle aged woman with no criminal record could remain unemployed. She pointed out to me that she would fail to meet her Key Performance Indicators and therefore I had to get a medical certificate. But I'm not sick, I said. But I want to work, I said. Nevertheless, off I went to the doctor and paid $45 to be put onto a sickness benefit. I stayed on this for over a year as my situation remained complex and unresolved, visiting my GP every three months and explaining that I was not really sick but this was what the system required of me. My next case manager was sympathetic, and unusually flexible. And I applied for jobs here and there, just for a lark, and to show I was still, at bottom, respectable.
Eventually, and to my surprise, I actually got a job. I did this by myself and by completely legitimate means. It has shit pay and shittier hours and is not quite full time, and it is in a low status industry, but it is mine and I got it and I am now almost a citizen again. I will not reveal what it is in order to protect those who took the risk and took me on. I do not want to jinx it and I value the reputation of my employer too much. Naturally I am very grateful to them. I have tried to add value to the place by organizing and unionizing the workers, and I aim to educate myself where I can. It's a start.
Being in the workforce has immense value for me. I feel useful and purposeful. I am doing good. I have structure and sometimes people to talk to. We are perhaps the last vestiges of the genuine working class. We are mostly single mothers with old cars, high rent, and difficult relationships. We are endlessly tired. We care about our work and we do not expect much from it. Ours is not a living wage. We wouldn't expect it to be. We are simply selling our labour.
There was a time when being a wage slave was considered to be a bad thing. People wanted to derive meaning from what they did. In those heady days there was talk of paying parents, and of a citizen's wage, and of being freed up by technology to pursue higher things which would be then valued accordingly by society. Income and work were becoming slightly decoupled.
If there ever was a battle between labour and capital, capital won decisively in the 1980's. Now, there are large numbers of us, including many of the young and bright, who want to be wage slaves. A steady wage might consign us to near impoverishment, but at least we know what next week will bring. More of the same. No worse. When I was deemed to be unemployable, and applying for 'unskilled'* jobs on low wages, I was begging to be someone's wage slave. Now I am, under the circumstances, I am genuinely pleased.
*There is no such thing.