Systemic Precarity for Labourers of the Future

Weekly reflections as I study urban policy in Asia

Based on the reading(s):

Kong, L., 2011. From precarious labor to precarious economy? Planning for precarity in Singapore’s creative economy. City, culture and society, 2(2), pp.55-64.


Systemic precarity, as a concept, appeared odd at first. When thinking of systems, I would have thought that they are usually stable, due to a mixture of predefined parameters and degrees of inertia, much like orbital shells with lower energy levels. There might be shocks, but those are likely perceived as anomalous rather than systemic.

With that in mind, however, I reasoned that a system could, for whatever reason, be predisposed to movements up and down energy states. Yet, that would be modelled dynamism, whose variance would be predicted by functions and parameters. Same old, same old.

Perhaps systemic precarity cannot be understood in terms of conventional modelling with determinate functions. I am reminded of a class on computational thinking, which delved into agent-based modelling. With enough computing power, one could programme simple rules for numerous autonomous agents whom, under different runs, could exhibit a variety of behaviours and collectively yield different pathways and outcomes. I think systemic precarity likely refers to something like this. A system increasing in precarity is one that is increasingly difficult to predict, one that is decreasingly determinate in nature. This could be a gap in knowledge and technological capability – we just haven’t found the correct functions or achieved the required computing power – or an epistemological limitation – there’s no way we can ever find out; or perhaps, in trying to model this system in conventional ways, we would have already distorted the phenomenon we’re trying to observe. I digressed. In sum, systemic precarity in an economy likely involves an increased variety of moving parts with a corresponding increase in the cause-effect pathways among them. This then limits the state’s ability to define, model and facilitate economic development, or to mitigate the resulting variances in economic performance.

Kong’s examination of Singapore’s shift towards a “precarious economy” provides useful insights for both freelancers-might-be’s and policy enthusiasts, in the following areas: (1) defining and measuring what might be precarious work and labourers, (2) nurturing individuals equipped to navigate and leverage on a precarious economy, (3) establishing mediating institutions that serve the needs of the precarious creative class (if it such a classification even proves meaningful).

I am particularly thankful of her explication of the importance of social networks for these “new labourers”. Social networks not only serve instrumental objectives as grounds for potential work opportunities, they fulfil objectives of empowerment and fulfilment as well, as these labourers are encouraged by one another to assume greater control over one’s economic life while providing a buffer for their income instability. Beyond economic benefits, equipping labourers with social networking skills and platforms could produce ancillary benefits for civic activity in a society. Conviviality – autonomous, creative intercourse among persons, and between persons and the environment – features strongly both in creative, freelancing work and in civic processes. While focusing on economic life has often led to runaway trains in cities with increasing income disparities, depoliticisation and disenfranchisement of the less privileged, focusing on developing the precarious economy might actually prove helpful to a society’s overall health – insofar as one deems convivial civic activity as important to the idea of a city.

I am also intrigued by Kong’s recommendations for mediating institutions, including innovations in how labour unions function, such that the rights of freelancers might be better negotiated for and secured. Specifically, I find the idea of collectives especially appealing and invigorating, perhaps due to its associational nature as opposed to the oft-transactional nature of labour markets, and would attempt to explore this more as I go along in my study of city living and urban policy.

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