IT'S a global phenomenon so widespread that a new name has been coined for it: the ''precariat''.
It describes the millions of people who live a precarious existence of social and economic uncertainty - who jump from one short-term contract or piece of casual work to the next.
James Searle hadn't expected to join this group's swelling ranks. But the information technology tutor at Swinburne University is a classic example of a worldwide trend in which Australia has taken an unenviable lead: job insecurity.
Mr Searle has been a sessional teacher at Swinburne since the start of last year; he finds out only at the start of each semester how long his services will be required, and for how many hours he will work.
''I'll probably be doing it for the forseeable future,'' says the 27-year-old database and information systems expert, who is among a group of sessional teachers at the university who run first-year classes.
Often, says Mr Searle, he isn't paid on time and the position's insecurity can make it hard to plan. He acknowledges there are upsides - it can be convenient, and there are extra penalty rates.
''But it doesn't count for the things you miss out on, like superannuation,'' he says.
Once a permanent job was the norm in Australia. But since the 1980s a dramatic decline in full-time employment and a corresponding jump in casual and fixed-term work like Mr Searle's has left up to 40 per cent of the nation - both blue-collar workers and white alike - in insecure work.
Today at the Melbourne Town Hall, former deputy prime minister Brian Howe will hold the first of two days of public hearings about insecure work, part of a national inquiry into the growth of the phenomenon that the ACTU has run over the past five months.
Mr Howe and the inquiry visited every state and territory, and heard from dozens of workers, community organisations, academics and unions. More than 500 people and groups made submissions.
Many told Mr Howe of their lack of entitlements, their inability to plan, and the constant uncertainty about long-term employment. Mr Howe said that the growth of insecure work had been more pronounced in Australia than overseas.
Industry and employer groups argue that the rise of casual and contract work has given the Australian economy a huge boost over the past few decades. Meanwhile, many employees actually want the flexibility to meet their family responsibilities and lifestyle choices. The community needed the flexibility to achieve economic growth, high levels of employment and increased workforce participation, said Stephen Smith, director of workplace relations at the Australian Industry Group.
The ACTU's inquiry finishes tomorrow. It will produce a report by May.