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The term ‘precarious employment’ is widely used to describe irregular and insecure work arrangements that have grown substantially in both rich and poor countries since the late 1970s. Like the term ‘contingent work’, precarious employment has been adopted and increasingly used by academic researchers and later policymakers since the 1980s. However, the term has deeper historical roots and its recent use can be more accurately seen as a revival as labour markets have taken on some features characteristic of an earlier period. This article examines the use of the term ‘precarious employment’ in political and public debate in the century or more prior to the 1930s, finding that in key respects, this use mirrors contemporary debates. Recognising that precarious employment was a pervasive feature of labour markets in developed countries prior to World War Two has a number of major benefits for contemporary debates. These include a better understanding of the policies that shape the extent of precarious employment. Historical evidence also provides a guide for and reinforcement of a growing body of contemporary research, pointing to both the immediate and broader social effects of precarious employment.