Autonomous precarity or precarious autonomy? Dilemmas of young workers in Hong Kong

Victor WONG, Tat Chor AU-YEUNG

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Informed by autonomist perspectives on precarious work and labour subjectivity, this article discusses the dynamics between autonomy and job precarity. Based on purposive sampling, the qualitative findings, drawn from interviews with precarious workers aged 18–29 years in Hong Kong, reveal tensions among four types of aspirations. First, the desire for achieving freedom and individual ambition in work made the respondents critical of the notion of employment-related stability. Second, a determination to break with mainstream career paths empowered young people to take alternative pathways to new modes of work and life. Third, precarious employment was seen as a stepping stone for realising plans for travel or study. Finally, tolerance of precarity was perceived as a transitional stage in their striving for future stability. However, the findings also show the structured dilemmas experienced by young workers regarding the complex relationship between autonomy and precarity in a neoliberal labour market. Some young workers pursued work–life autonomy, constrained by precarious employment relations, acknowledging and bearing the costs, while some strategically used precarity in individual negotiations with employers to realise their goals. This article analyses young workers’ subjectivity through the lenses of autonomy and age and pushes the boundary of precarity studies beyond an implicit dichotomy between determinism and voluntarism. JEL codes: I38, J38, J62.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-261
Number of pages21
JournalEconomic and Labour Relations Review
Issue number2
Early online date27 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Autonomism
  • creative work
  • Hong Kong
  • labour market flexibility
  • labour subjectivity
  • neoliberalism
  • non-unionised work
  • precarious work
  • precarity
  • worker autonomy
  • young workers
  • youth labour market


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