The “entreprecariat”: is tomorrow’s entrepreneur class doomed to precarity?

Silvio Lorusso's latest book on entrepreneurship and precarity

In the business world, entrepreneurship is the stuff of dreams and its most successful practitioners are superheroes. But where once entrepreneurs may have been rare, they are now considered part of the mainstream. And most of us have been tempted by it at some point in our careers. Perhaps you too have toyed with the idea of quitting your day job to freelance as a digital nomad or leaving the office behind to become a photographer. Yet behind the cool aura associated with entrepreneurship and the professional independence it promises, hides a less glamorous reality: the potential for “precarity” and the associated anxiety this causes in some people. (Precarity is a term used by sociologists to refer to the spread of contingent work and insecure employment, according to the Dictionary of Human Resource Management.)

In his book of 2019, Entreprecariat: Everyone is an Entrepreneur. Nobody is Safe, Silvio Lorusso, an Italian designer, artist and researcher at the Institute of Network Cultures (INC) in Amsterdam, analyses the precarity at the heart of entrepreneurial culture today. Against the backdrop of Covid-19, we had more than a few questions for Lorusso. Is the number of entrepreneurs likely to increase? Will entrepreneurship become increasingly precarious? Much like the incredible diversity of this movement, the answer isn’t so simple.

European countries have taken various measures to limit the pandemic’s economic impact on employees, such as short-time working. What protections have been put in place for entrepreneurs?

In the Netherlands, where I live, the “ZZP’ers” or self-employed and entrepreneurs received a pretty generous, almost unconditional, support scheme covering six months’ salary. I see this initiative as part of a broader strategy to “de-employ” institutions, strengthening a freelance culture that ultimately saves money. But this is the exception. In Italy, the “Partite IVA” or freelancers received only an emergency grant of €600 per month for three months. A new, longer-term measure is to be launched this year, but it’s not finished. What’s happening today is that it’s becoming almost impossible to find out if entrepreneurs have been negatively affected or spared by the crisis, because so many radically different professionals fall into this category. This fact, in and of itself, shows the spread of entrepreneurship in society.

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You came up with the term “entreprecariat” from the idea that an increasing number of people are being drawn into self-employment, which is necessarily precarious. But who are the self-employed? Can we group an undocumented worker and a recent university graduate together?

No, of course not. A casual worker, such as a man with a van being paid under the table, doesn’t have the same entrepreneurial ambitions as a young university graduate. But the idea of the ”entreprecariat” remains a valid analytical framework, because elements of entrepreneurial ideology play a role in both cases. For young graduates, it’s obvious. They might want to start their own business, become entrepreneurs in the truest sense of the word and invent the next Airbnb. Look at delivery jobs. A few years ago, we could easily have assumed that those jobs would be taken by the same young graduates looking to make some pocket money. But this entrepreneurial narrative was actually covering up a darker reality: labour outsourcing and the plight of illegal immigrants. This framing of entrepreneurship and precarity leads to the same problems of the so-called “precariat” class. Therefore I see “entreprecariat” as an analytical lens to reveal the impact of this discourse around entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurism is what happens when this practice of risk-taking and self-realisation turns into a value system.

Can you tell us about the distinction you make between entrepreneurship and entrepreneurism?

Entrepreneurship is when you have an idea or a project, something that doesn’t exist, and you want to make it happen. You take a risk to make it happen. This risk can be in terms of either money or time. Entrepreneurism is what happens when this practice of risk-taking and self-realisation turns into a value system. For example, it’s this system of values that qualifies employees as “slaves” and self-employed freelancers as independent, free individuals, which, of course, isn’t always the case. While entrepreneurship is a practice, entrepreneurism is also a value system, ideology and narrative.

What impact will the current crisis have on this situation?

I believe that the entrepreneurial narrative of “crisis as opportunity” is being used more and more to encourage employed persons, both employees and “false self-employed” people, to work more than they are required to. Such a story goes hand in hand with the whole “roll up your sleeves” mentality. The problem is that many people are already working more, something that often goes unnoticed.

What do you mean?

Employed persons have already been asked to adapt to the “new normal”, having to spend time learning new digital tools, set up a home office and coordinate modified schedules with their colleagues. Much of this extra work has remained, at the end of the day, invisible. In a way, I feel like this kind of motivational discourse, such as “roll up your sleeves”, renders invisible all the emergency efforts that employees have made to keep things moving at the peak of the crisis.

We’ve always been motivated by the fact that, since this person has succeeded, we must follow his or her advice.

There is a certain “romanticising” of entrepreneurship, while precarity and anxiety remain in the shadows. Why?

That’s not entirely true. In their own way, the challenges are also addressed. All these stories, stories about the great entrepreneurs, have similar characteristics, with this origin story of precarity. There’s the classic image of a business launching from a garage (the creation of what became Apple in Steve Job’s garage, for example). However, when this part of the story is actually told, the narrative focuses on its happy ending. Survivorship bias is a well-known mechanism. We are culturally inclined to view success as more significant than failure. Yet we know that Elon Musk’s trajectory is a complete one-off. Imitating him makes no sense. But we do it anyway. We’ve always been motivated by the fact that, since this person has succeeded, we must follow his or her advice. However, the failure rate of start-ups is extremely high. You have extraordinarily little chance of your start-up becoming a tenable company. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go for it. It can be a rewarding experience, but you have to keep that failure in mind all the time. In that way, survivorship bias applies to us. We like to think we’re special, that we’re unique and that we’ll be one of those people who makes it.

In your book, you briefly hint at an “exit strategy” to exorcise the negative effects of the entreprecariat. You say that solutions must be collective and co-operative. What exactly do you mean by that?

This need for co-operation, or the creation of a “we”, is more a diagnosis than a rule to follow. It’s just a fact that the self-employed are isolated and atomised. Talking about the idea of the polarisation of society, the work of the philosopher André Gorz is interesting. His idea was that society is polarised in accordance with a trajectory of available time. On the one hand, there are the people who can delegate—such as professionals and white-collar workers—and whose work can be converted into salaries or high incomes. They work more and more, delegating everything that isn’t of value or that doesn’t bring in money, such as shopping, cooking and cleaning. On the other hand, there are those people who are assigned the delegated tasks. Those are the people who are stuck in low-paying jobs, such as food delivery, with no career prospects. The gig economy is all about outsourcing labour that you can’t convert into money. As a result, the former are busy holding onto their positions and, they hope, advancing it, while the latter are busy making ends meet. The former risk burnout and the latter risk running into difficulties. What’s more, the latter don’t really have access to the positions held by the former. I think that if those who delegate stopped thinking about their lives only in terms of productivity at work and incorporated other aspects, which could be the things they delegated—such as cooking, shopping and cleaning—their own lives would be much richer and they would also free up time and opportunities for others.

Photo: Joseph Knierzinger

Translated by Andrea Schwam

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