Precarious life in Tehran
"That time when a generation could stand on its own feet is over. Our generation cannot do it." Mehdi is 36 years old, educated, he pursues his dream of becoming a well-known documentary filmmaker. The last time we met was a few weeks ago, in a café in central Tehran.
- Thursday, 14 September 2017
Son of the early years of the 1979 revolution, and grown up with a father who pulled down a statue of the Shah, six years ago Mehdi decided to film his economic, family and personal crisis. That crisis is not over. "It all started when my dad lost his job," he says, "he was a hard worker". As his father's failing activity was wearing out their life, money for the family was scarce. Mehdi could not move out and start building a more independent life. He had only precarious prospects ahead. "I could not get along with my father: I blamed him for my uncertain future, and he complained about my ungrateful attitude," he continues. Just a few temporary jobs were waiting for him on the market.
"Feshar-e zendegi", the pressure of life on a generation living in a “suspended” adulthood
Mehdi’s generation is living in a "suspended" adulthood: on hold for a better future and a permanent job, in a country where 12.8% of the population is unemployed (30% when it comes to young people, and 44% if one tighten the lens on women).
Last spring, during the electoral campaign, President Hassan Rouhani proposed a development plan that envisions 900,000 new jobs a year. It is now too early to see how far that promise will go. Meanwhile, a generation is awaiting, and it is not absolutely fixed and immobile. Rather, it is very dynamic. It represents the children of the 1980s, often running away from a refrain-accusation which blames them for being incapable of becoming adults. They have not directly experienced the 1979 revolution, beyond the stories of their parents. Yet, they have undergone social changes, myths, restrictions, the rules of a life constantly in balance between the public and the private spheres.
They were raised under the Islamic Republic, but they also came up with overlapping references and models, watching satellite TV, taking on technology, and surfing the internet. "We had to fight for everything," Mehdi says. His generation is mostly well-educated, and therefore, even more aware of what it does not have and what it needs to reach. In the last ten years, the youth was overwhelmed by: 1) the international sanctions (which almost doubled the price of bread), 2) the ailing economy, and 3) the inflation which, in 2012 – a year before Rouhani was elected for the first time – had reached one of its highest rates: 42 percent.
In Persian, they call it feshar-e zendegi, the pressure of life. It represents the cage of a precarious existence that, for many children of the 1980s, means: economic dependency on parents, temporary and often underpaid work, and increasingly difficult marriages.
Intermittent jobs, precarious existence
In Tehran, several people work as employees during the day and turn into taxi drivers at nights. It is a way to roll out the salary. Having a second or a third job, and then keep working for ten or fifteen hours is like a daily routine for about 30 percent of the labor force. The numbers show that a consistent slice between 30 and 40 percent is close to the poverty line. Many lower middleclass households are not able to earn and collect the minimum of 3 million tomans (about 750 euros), crucial to feeding a family, according to Trade Unions data reported by ISNA a few months ago.
"The youth can aim just for short-term jobs, often without any professional guarantee or health coverage," Mehdi explains. This mechanism also blocks any possible claims related to payment delays and inhibits any demand.
“Precarize” and divide: the origins of a phenomenon that began in the '90s
These precarious lives are screwed into a system that has been established and transformed over time. The first temporary contracts appeared in the early 1990s, under Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, and today they represent almost 90 percent of new contracts. In the same decade, temporary hiring agencies have emerged, and in the meantime, with the reform of state labor law, the working class has lost much of its bargaining power.
That same working class, taking the streets and paralyzing the factories, had been crucial in 1979 for the ultimate success of the Revolution. Yet, today it is de facto very precarious.
Since the revolution, however, almost forty years have passed. The consequences of this process of "precarization" involve all workers, especially the youth. Nevertheless, economic and class disparities have not become as a glue that can hold all the different groups within the public space together. For instance, during the 2009’s Green Movement protests, the working class was not a cohesive and recognizable group in the streets, alongside the students. In that circumstance, many young students were chanting slogans for civil rights and not in support of social justice.
Today, discomfort and precariousness have crystallized in the crisis of a bigger and economically dissatisfied middle class. Although demands for change are far from being soothed (first of all those of women and teachers struggling for their rights), the word “precarize” has thus far assumed a further meaning: divide.