I have my doubts about whether precarity is always a good category for academic labor organizing. But from within the universe of European precarity discourse, I especially admire Mariya Ivancheva’s recent summary of the situation of early career researchers in her 2015 paper “The Age of Precarity and the New Challenges to the Academic Profession“.
First she comments on the poverty wages and immense structural sexism that characterizes the post-PhD situation:
… a whole generation of junior academics is exposed to an ever growing casualization of labor. In Ireland alone, as a study of the collective Third Level Workplace Watch shows, a growing number of casual academics win on average 10 000 € annual income for an average of eight and a half years after finishing their PhD. In 63% of the cases this income is generated by hourly paid work, done in 62% of the cases by women. In Ireland again, a recent study by the Higher Academic Authority has shown that men still get 70% of all permanent academic positions in all seven universities in the country. The situation is similar in other countries where despite the fact that women make for the majority of completed PhD dissertations, the ratio of employment is still at their detriment. Women are particularly exposed to vulnerability with less access to permanent positions, and more emotional labor and care-giving functions both in and out of the academy. While those who have children feel losing the academic game because of the domestic burden of care in ever decreasing welfare conditions, those who do not have children feel deprived of private life due to growing imperative to do replacement teaching and administrative work.
Ivancheva subsequently remarks on the increasingly cruel norm of labor mobility that precarity and underemployment impose:
Beyond national trends, a growing “internationalization” (i.e. transnational flexibilization) of academic work makes it a difficult subject of both research and organized resistance. To stay in the academic game after finishing a PhD, in an English language research institution, one is usually required to put up with flexibility and recurrent migration. Those who get to do a post-doc or get a full-time fixed-contract teaching position are usually pressed to find time out of work in order to turn their PhD into publications. The shorter the time of the contract the higher the probability is that they return unprepared to the ever more competitive job-market.
Finally, she succinctly notes the costs of this mobility norm:
On the road of celebrated “internationalization” many are pressed to curtail their previous social and professional networks, and change countries every few months or years, if lucky. Many suffer loneliness and depression while others have to take on the responsibility of moving their whole families along or commuting across regional or national borders to make ends meet. The others, who – out of choice, or often out of necessity – opt out of the game of transnational mobility, fall easily in the trap of zero-hour teaching and precarious research arrangements in order to stay afloat. Both groups are dependent on local or international clan-like arrangements of loyalty and hierarchy. While university administrations outnumber academic faculty, academics do ever-growing amount of administrative work of (self-) evaluation to fit the demands of the ‘global knowledge economy’. Individualized contractual arrangements and access to benefits and resources encourages cruel competition among colleagues and friends, and breaks all solidarity.
In particular, her emphasis on “cruel competition among friends” fits my own disciplinary milieu (U.S. cultural anthropology) all too exactly. The question of how to reinvent professional solidarity among people forced to compete with each other for scarce jobs remains, in my opinion, one of the major challenges facing academic labor organizers.