speri.comment: the political economy blog

The working lives of the under-30s show the future of work for us all

New research by the TUC to understand the lives of Britain’s young workers will help improve work and give them a path to union membership

Antonia Bance, Head of Campaigns and Communications, TUC

Lindsay’s phone rings again as she squints at the list of house calls for the day. On the end of the phone an elderly client cries as she pleads for someone to come and help her.

Paul’s supervisor threatens to cut next week’s hours unless he stays late – so he misses his girlfriend’s antenatal appointment.

Jessie has to turn up 15 minutes before the shop opens every day – but doesn’t get paid for this extra time at work.

And Laura walks home in tears after yet another customer shouts at her.

These are everyday, unremarkable stories of work for many people. A lack of control over how work is done.  Routine flouting of long-established legal rights at work – like the minimum wage.  New contracts that put all the burden of being flexible onto the worker.  And throughout all of this there is the sense of constantly being at the beck and call of others.

This is life at work for young workers on low and middle incomes aged between 21-30– and it shows us the future of life at work for huge numbers of UK workers in the years to come, if nothing changes.

87 per cent of 21-30s on low to middle incomes work in the private sector.  Nearly half of them work in retail, social care, hospitality and food.  So when we’re thinking about how work needs to change, let’s start in the sectors that are only going to grow and where jobs are poorly paid and poor quality.

What makes our working lives better is strong legal rights – and strong unions to make sure people actually get those rights and more.

There’s a growing consensus that legal rights for workers haven’t kept pace with the reality of how work is today. And as you would expect, the Trades Unions Congress (TUC) will play a full part in campaigning for the rights that today’s workers actually need.

There are some things only unions can do: bringing workers together to balance the boss’ power with their collective power.  Individuals raising concerns can be picked off or placated, but a group of workers determined to stick together can make their employer sit down and concede improvements to wages and conditions at work.

And, of course, collective bargaining wins better rights in individual workplaces, even if legal rights lag behind. That can bring real change for groups of workers – and it can act as a beacon to others, helping to normalise better treatment at work and make the case for new rights.

Union recognition is also the best enforcement mechanism for our rights at work. Take discrimination against pregnant women and new mums.  It is much less likely in places where unions are active.  Having unions on site means employers are less likely to break employment law.  Nowadays, with employment tribunal fees of up to £1200 acting as a deterrent for workers to seek justice, having the financial and legal backing of a union has never been more important.

So strong unions could be a big part of winning a better deal for today’s 21-30s. But just 6.3 per cent of 21-30s in the private sector are members of a trade union.  That’s not because their experience of work is positive – nor is it because young workers are stupid.  It’s because unions haven’t been present and effective in their lives at work, as work has changed – and it’s up to unions ourselves to fix that.

So, what would a union that worked well for 21-30s in the private sector look like? We can guess that it would be pretty different to how unions work now.

That’s why the TUC kicked off our young workers’ programme with six months of in-depth user research into 21-30s’ lives.  The programme has an ambitious goal: we want to find a model that engages low-to-middle income private sector workers aged 21-30 in collective organising, and gives them a path to trade union membership.

We’ve talked to more than 100 young core workers – the backbone of our labour market – over WhatsApp and in face-to-face conversations and this has drawn out some surprising and troubling lessons.

We predicted that expectations of work would be low – but still, we were surprised. Young workers commonly revealed examples of poor treatment that makes people steeped in trade unionism furious – but then in the next breath they would say, ‘but overall I’m treated fairly’.  And, moreover, young workers don’t feel that their experience of work is necessarily poor – they think that this is just how things are, not that it’s unusual or unacceptable.

Even if they could see things wrong with work, many young workers exhibited a deep sense of futility. Some had seen attempts to change things in the workplace that got nowhere in the past.  Repeatedly we heard ‘Why would I put my neck on the line when nothing will change anyway?

Compounding the sense of futility was a real lack of trust between colleagues. When asked to talk to a few people at work to identify a shared issue, the most common response was ‘no chance – they’d be straight behind my back to the manager and then I’d be in trouble’.  This is toxic to collective organising – and a huge barrier for trade unionism to overcome.

Building on what we’d learned, we split the huge group of young workers into four, based on how important a young worker’s current job is to them, and whether they focus on getting by right now or are more future oriented.  These four groups are:

Desperate mindset – ‘Dan’

  • The ‘desperate’ group are in the most precarious jobs. They can’t focus on the future because keeping their wage coming in is the most important priority.
  • Dan might say: ‘Losing my job makes me anxious about speaking out, I’m lucky to have a job, there’s plenty of people who don’t and are ready to take your place.’

Progression mindset – ‘Paula’

  • The ‘progression’ group are focused on getting on in life  —  in the sector they are already working in.
  • Paula might say: ‘I can see how things could be run better at work but they just don’t listen to me.’

Too comfortable mindset – ‘Tamara’

  • Young workers in the ‘too comfortable’ group see their job as a means to an end which fits around other commitments in their lives, like their kids.
  • Tamara might say: ‘I feel lucky I can swap shifts so it seems ungrateful to complain about my pay or holiday pay.’

Stopgap mindset – ‘Steve’

  • Workers like Steve never intended to be doing what they do now — and though they want to get on, it won’t be in their current job or sector.
  • Steve might say: ‘There’s no point in trying to change things, I won’t be here much longer.’

This new TUC research has helped us to form clearer ideas about how to appeal to a group of workers who have never engaged with unions. Then, sitting down with trade union organisers and young workers, we generated hundreds of ideas for a new trade union offer.  Over the course of summer 2017, a small group of young workers will engage with a ‘minimum viable product’ version of trade unionism – which will tell us huge amounts about what works in appealing to workers like them.  And our plan is to launch a full pilot in 2018, the 150th anniversary of the TUC’s founding.

We don’t know what that pilot will look like yet. But what we do know is this: there is no substitute for getting out and actually talking to young workers who aren’t in unions.

There can be no more urgent task for our union movement than to improve life at work for Britain’s young workers – not least to stop their experience at work becoming universal, as they grow older. The risk of not meeting this challenge is that the working lives of the under 30s become the future of work for all of us.  And the best way to do that is to make sure that young workers are in unions which understand their lives, and are geared up to win the changes to work they need.

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This article is part of SPERI and openDemocracy’s joint series on labour and work in the modern economy. Read all of the articles in the series so far here. Find out more about the series here.

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