On the Edge: Neoliberalism, Austerity and Insecurity

I touched on the idea of families on the edge, of poverty, security, certainty, anxiety, in my squeezed middle post. I want to explore that idea, of the edge, a bit more here, to think about the ways in which neoliberalism, in general, and austerity, in particular, are associated with experiences of being on the brink, and what it might feel like to be on the brink.

Of course, these are ideas long associated with neoliberalism. Pierre Bourdieu‘s 1998 discussion of the violence of neoliberalism sees the ‘absolute reign of flexibility’ create an environment of competition and individualisation: “the struggle of all against all … through everyone clinging to their job … under conditions of insecurity, suffering and stress”. For Bourdieu, the structural violence of unemployment and the ‘menace’ of job insecurity puts workers on edge.

More recently, Guy Standing has drawn our attention to the precariat, the ‘new dangerous class’, “a multitude of insecure peole, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development”. A particularly pernicious and increasingly widespread form of precarity is the zero-hours contract, which forces workers (in major public sector organisations, such as the NHS, as well as large corporations) into a liminal, ‘twilight zone’, ‘on standby’, neither fully in nor fully out of the labour market, with little control over their time or their income. It’s easy to see how that loss of any sense of certainty, or predictability, might be associated with anxiety.   

The idea of precarity echoes strongly the idea of an edge, and a danger of falling. As Standing himself suggests “Many people outside the precariat feel they could fall into it at any time.”

on the edge

One of the markers of this period of recession and austerity, then, is the extension of precarity and vulnerability to ever larger parts of the population. What was, until recently, an experience associated with more marginal forms of employment, in informal economies, is now part of the mainstream, an everyday threat. More and more workers – and their families – have been brought to the edge. Media analyses, blog posts and think tank reports are full, day after day, of stories of workers in good jobs, with stable track records of employment, suddenly falling into uncertainty as they face job loss and redundancy.

But perhaps the metaphor of a cliff edge is wrong. Perhaps it’s more like a shoreline, with the edge of the labour market moving backwards and forwards through working populations, leaving people sometimes in, sometimes out. Despite myths of ‘benefit dependency’, most Jobseekers Allowance claims are very short, with many claiming for less than six months. But this in itself is troubling; life is unpredictable and unreliable. The precariousness of life under neoliberalism rests, then, to a considerable extent on the insecurity of employment, the in and out, the threat of redundancy, and the loss of the possibility of continuity.

But this is also coupled with what Rachael Peltz identified as “the absence of a containing governing authority” or what Lauren Berlant has described as a declining “infrastructure for holding the public as a public”. The erosion of welfare provision and the loss of other ‘containing’ institutions, such as unions and certain kinds of community, reinforce the sense of insecurity. The idea of social security and of the ‘safety net’ clearly assert the connection between these institutions and a sense of being contained, or held, of not being allowed to fall (off the edge).

In the context of current period of austerity, not only is welfare provision eroded still further, but the threat of further erosions and a growing sense that any benefit income is itself uncertain, subject to repeated reassessment and ever-changing criteria, provoke still more anxiety.

What is more, neoliberalism also promotes ideas of independence and self-sufficiency. It fosters an ambivalence towards, or even a wholesale rejection of, interdependency (as Judith Butler has explored). Neoliberal subjects should be self-contained, relying only on themselves to achieve success. Of course, this means, following Valerie Walkerdine, that any failure is also ‘achieved’ individually.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the sense of being contained enables us, hopefully, to go on being. In conditions of precarity, that sense is threatened; “trust in the continuity of life” (to quote Lauren Berlant) is replaced by new forms of subjectivity, insecurely balanced on experiences of vulnerability and individualisation. The loss of a secure environment of interdependency makes it difficult to ‘go on being’, to feel a sense of ontological security, as well as a sense of material or financial security. As Adam Phillips suggests, without a sense of containment, living becomes reactive, coping replaces living. Donald Winnicott explains how ruptures and breaks in the ‘holding’ or ‘facilitating’ environment, and the threat of them, erodes the possibility of going on being; when life becomes a struggle against the environment, when the environment impinges on life, then there is a psychic cost.  

Although Winnicott was working in the field of child development, and talking of the welfare of infants, it is possible to think about these ideas in a broader context of welfare. Debates about the ‘psychical effects of social injustice’ (Frost and Hoggett 2008, 442) have enriched our discussions since Bourdieu drew our attention to ‘social suffering’ and since Richard Sennett spoke of the ‘hidden injuries of class’. In this project, what I’m trying to explore further is what this sense of being ‘on the edge’ feels like for families today and, importantly, to ask who (or what) contains these families in the context of austerity.




Recruiting interviewees


What is this research about?

Some say that in our global world, local communities are becoming less important. Yet, as many individuals and families are struggling with the effects of recession, it seems that these local, personal relationships, and the support they offer, are becoming important again. This research tries to explore this question in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate.

I’m particularly interested in exploring whether our relationships with family, friends and neighbours help us to deal with economic uncertainty. This might be through the moral support they offer, or because they give us time, or money, or other kinds of help that make it easier for us to get by.

The North East has been hit especially hard by the effects of recession and austerity (such as job loss, pay squeezes, benefits reductions, service cuts). Within the region, the ‘squeezed middle’ (low-to-middle income households, with a total income of roughly £12,000 to £40,000) has been particularly vulnerable.

Cullercoats and the Marden estate are home to a significant number of these households. They have dense and long-standing networks of community relationships and a relatively well-defined identity. All of this means this is a good place to explore the questions I’m interested in.

To explore these questions, it is important to me to first get to know Cullercoats and the Marden estate well. I want to get a sense of the life and history of the communities and to find out what is important to people living there.

The next step will be to carry out interviews with individuals and families in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate. These will involve discussions of the recession and of everyday relationships, with friends and family.


Why am I doing this research?

I believe the question of how individuals and families are living with the effects of the recession is an extremely important one and I think that people’s relationships with each other have a real influence on how they deal with economic stress. I have a young daughter, I work part-time and I live on the coast so these issues are personally important to me too.


Who is funding it?

Newcastle University, through their Catherine Cookson Foundation. The University has a longstanding relationship with Cullercoats through the Dove Marine Laboratory and is keen to support research that connects to the lives of local communities. Of course, Catherine Cookson herself was very interested in communities like Cullercoats.


Who will use the research?

Most importantly, this research will, I hope, be the beginning of a long-term relationship with Cullercoats, one that allows me to research issues that are important to people who live there. So I plan to feed what I find out back to the people I interviewed, including to those working in institutions that support community life. I will also be writing blogs and papers to present at conferences and to publish in academic journals.


How will any information you share be used?

In all meetings and interviews, I will discuss and agree how the information will be used. If you would like it to be anonymised before it is used in presentations or publications, we can agree that. All material gathered in interviews and meetings will be stored safely. I will be the only person who has access to it.


Are you interested in being interviewed about your experiences of recession and community in Cullercoats?

I’m currently looking for families living on low-to-middle incomes in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate to interview. Interviews will focus on your experiences of the current recession and your relationships within the local community.

Interviews can take place with one or more family members and can be arranged at a time and place that suits you.

If you are interested, please do get in touch and I will send you more information about what is involved.


Getting in touch

If you live in Cullercoats or on the Marden estate, think you belong to the ‘squeezed middle’, and are interested in being interviewed, please contact me by email, phone or text.

Mobile: 07580 386874

Email: alison.stenning@ncl.ac.uk


Updates and more information about the project can be found at:



Twitter: @alisonstenning


A PDF version of this information can be downloaded here.