There has been a substantial increase in research dealing with the various forms of what has been termed ‘precarious employment’ (Arnold and Bongiovi, 2013; Campbell and Price, 2016; Kalleberg, 2018; Prosser, 2016; Vosko, 2010). Guy Standing's book The Precariat (2011) drew attention to what he saw as the precarious employment situation of older people (among other population groups), arguing that inadequate pension provision had led many to take new insecure jobs in later life. Standing conceptualized precarity as a labour outcome, related to individuals being in precarious employment, rather than older workers feeling precarious in a psychological sense. He argued (2011, p 59) that while some may be dissatisfied with being in precarious jobs (so-called ‘groaners’), others might be perfectly happy with this situation (‘grinners’).
This chapter contributes to debates on precarity among older workers in two ways. First, it develops the concept of ‘ontological precarity’ as a means of describing the individual experience of anxiety arising from the everyday experience of precarious work. This builds on the work of scholars such as Millar (2017) and Worth (2016), who focus on precarity as a lived experience rather than solely as a labour outcome. Second, it develops a new theoretical framework for understanding ontological precarity, which extends the scope of enquiry beyond individuals’ labour market position in order to take account of their broader circumstances (Campbell and Burgess, 2018).
We argue that for a significant proportion of older workers, the financial pressure to work for longer, combined with limited alternative employment prospects, gives rise to a heightened sense of precarity. To understand this, it is crucial to locate older workers’ experiences of precarity within the context of a shifting ‘welfare state’ landscape; this includes rising State Pension ages and attempts to extend working lives (Grenier et al, 2017; Lain and Loretto, 2016). It is also important to take into account the fact that pressures to work longer are related to a decline in the financial support within households, a key change in recent years being the rise in the number of older people living alone (Office for National Statistics, 2017).
The theoretical model presented in this chapter identifies three intersecting ‘domains’ of precarity: precarious employment, precarious welfare states and precarious households. We suggest that older workers’ sense of ontological precarity stems from feeling ‘trapped’ by the varying interactions of precarity in these three domains.