Precarity, 19th Century Style

If any single factor dominated the lives of nineteenth-century workers it was insecurity. They did not know at the beginning of the week how much they would bring home at the end. They did not know how long their present work would last or, if they lost it, when they would get another job or under what conditions. They did not know when accident or sickness would hit them, and though they knew that some time in middle age — perhaps in the forties for unskilled laborers, perhaps in the fifties for the more skilled — they would become incapable of doing a full measure of adult physical labour, they did not know what would happen to them between then and death. Theirs was not the insecurity of peasants, at the mercy of periodic — and to be honest, often more murderous — catastrophes such as drought or famine, but capable of predicting with some accuracy how a poor man or woman would spend most days of their lives from birth to the graveyard. It was a more profound unpredictability, in spite of the fact that probably a good proportion of workers were employed for long periods of their lives by a single employer. There was no certainty of work even for the most skilled: during the slump of 1857-8 the number of workers in the Berlin engineering industry fell by almost a third.


For the world of liberalism insecurity was the price paid for both progress and freedom, not to mention wealth, and was made tolerable by continuous economic expansion. Security was to be bought — at least sometimes — but not for free men and women but, as the English terminology put it clearly, for “servants” — whose liberty was strictly constrained: domestic servants, “railway servants,” even “civil servants” (or public officials).

–Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Capital (1848-1875)


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