Young people and the normalisation of economic crisis in the UK

Our new research considers the perspectives of today’s young people on the economy, crisis and labour market change – and how they view the prospect of transforming their circumstances through politics

It is now widely accepted that young people are among the groups that have been most effected by the financial crisis and its aftermath. Indeed, many of the alarming trends which have been disproportionately experienced by the young pre-date 2008, such as stagnation in earnings growth, skills under-utilisation (as more young people began to attend university, and pay more for the privilege) and labour market ‘hollowing out’, and the emergence of ‘gig economy’ practices as the labour market became a more precarious place for many.

This has been compounded by an apparent sense of generational injustice, as population ageing has resulted in the state devoting more of its resources to older people, who accordingly have been more protected in recent years from austerity-related spending cuts than the young.

The only thing missing from academic and public debate around these issues is, alas, the perspective of young people themselves. This is not to say there has been no research on generational differences in workplace attitudes and behaviours – but it tends to penetrate the public consciousness in rather crude ways, and there have been relatively few such studies in the UK context since the crisis. Too often, young people’s understanding of their economic circumstances is assumed rather than investigated; or a relatively politically engaged and media-savvy minority of young people is assumed to be representative of the cohort as a whole.

Our research with Unions21, in conjunction with Slater and Gordon, seeks to rectify this gap. We are interested in how young people in the UK think about the economy, the labour market and industrial relations – and the role of politics in shaping these environments. One of our chief concerns is the extent to which the experience of economic crisis has been absorbed and ‘normalised’ by young people. We also have a specific interest in attitudes towards trade unionism – although this is not discussed in detail in this post.

So what did we discover? We conducted a series of focus groups with 18-25 year-olds (in Manchester, Grantham and London, supplemented by an online discussion forum) in October 2017. The groups had a mix of male and female, and graduate and non-graduate participants, with the exception of one of the sessions in London, which was composed of only graduates (this reflects our interest in distinguishing between different groups of young people – we must be careful not assume the young think, and act, as one).

Overall, the research revealed a broadly negative outlook amongst young workers on the wider economic context around them. This was invariably related to the 2008 crisis (which is perhaps imbibed by the young with more causal force than it deserves!). But the uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote in 2016 is also an important feature of youth discourse in this regard, feeding a sense of generational victimhood, and of attaining adulthood at a particularly inhospitable point in economic history. Lots of participants reported that their situation was unfavourable compared to that of their parents’ generation. Some discussed how the economic environment today was having the effect of stunting their ambitions to do things they associated with ‘growing up’, which their parents had taken for granted, such as being able to afford to buy a house, get married, start a family, etc.

Young people are acutely aware of the precarious conditions that now prevail in parts of the labour market, complaining particularly about zero-hours contracts and intense competition for the most attractive jobs. Low pay is a constant complaint – but so too is limited job security and a dearth of opportunities for advancement. Interestingly, however, when asked about the concept of the ‘gig economy’, most participants in the focus groups had not heard of this term, expect for a small number in the graduate-only London focus group. This might suggest that the young have not (yet) considered how their experiences fit with wider patterns of structural change.

Indeed, this finding is supported, paradoxically perhaps, by the fact that some participants, particularly graduates, expressed optimism that while general labour market conditions were difficult, they would personally succeed as long as they were able to develop and utilise their skills. Some had internalised the crisis by accepting that things probably aren’t going to get better, whereas some had internalised it by claiming that their own talent and hard work would enable them to navigate choppy waters.

Perspectives on trade unions will be discussed at length in our future outputs. However, it is worth noting here that participants demonstrated a relatively limited understanding of trade unions, and the services unions offer. While most supported the idea of trade unionism, few had encountered union activity in their workplace, and they had not sought information on the potential benefits of union membership.

There were concerns about the perceived tendency of trade unions to pursue strikes rather than dialogue with employers, and the perceived high cost of union membership. Fascinatingly, many focus group participants expressed particular concern about the political role of many trade unions, specifically their support for the Labour Party. This perhaps speaks to a wider disconnection between young workers and the idea that collective political action is necessary to improve their precarious positions in the labour market.

Brexit featured heavily in general focus group discussions about politics. There was a feeling amongst some focus group participants that the electorate had to some extent been ‘mis-sold’ Brexit. Others, moreover, reported feeling overwhelmed by all of the information required to properly understand the issues around EU membership. Some referred to ‘switching off’ from politics altogether after the Brexit vote. Overall, while there was a degree of consensus that politics has the potential to significantly influence the economic situation in the country, most did not feel that any of the leading parties were capable of making a positive difference to their lives.

Our study is of course not based on longitudinal data, making it difficult to identify period and cohort effects – in other words, how distinctive the perspectives of young people are compared to previous generations. However, it is possible to reach some tentative conclusions, remembering that while everybody alive in the past decade has experienced the financial crisis and its aftermath, not everybody has experienced it as a young person transitioning between adolescence and adulthood. From a lifecourse perspective, young people’s experience of the crisis is, by definition, unique.

It seems clear that today’s young people hold views about their labour market circumstances which represent enduring concerns. Their view of what constitute good work – focused on fair pay, a degree of security, and opportunities to develop – is common to most cohorts. However, they have an emergent awareness that, compared to their immediate predecessors, this generation’s ambitions for obtaining good work are far less likely to be met. The sense that their livelihoods, and future prospects, are precarious underpins the perspectives of today’s young people on all aspects of political and economic life.

One of the effects of this precariousness is that it might seem that today’s young people are more materialistic or individualistic than previous generations. Our research has produced some supportive evidence for such notions. Ensuring they are adequately remunerated is a primary concern, as is, for some, the belief that employers should prioritise their personal development. However, such findings cannot be divorced from the reality that today’s young people are less able to take for granted that their work will be fairly rewarded, and offer opportunities for development.

It is interesting that, despite their justified belief that they are facing some significant challenges in the labour market, today’s young people do not instinctively turn to trade unions for support and opportunities for collective bargaining. This supports our view of a more pronounced individualism among young workers today. However, there is also a strong sense among young people that – even though the like the idea of trade unionism, and believe in the power of politics to transform economic life – traditional forms of political and economic representation are not well-suited to their perspectives.

The 2008 economic crisis also underpins much of what young people believe about the economy and their own place within it. This sense of injustice has been compounded by the Brexit vote, which young people report has created manifold uncertainties for their future lives. Our research reveals therefore a relatively strong sense of generational identity among today’s young people in which, rightly or wrongly, they believe their political and economic experiences are unique, or uniquely difficult, compared to recent cohorts. The long-term implications of such a perspective – and how progressive political actors might seek to accommodate it – remain unclear.

The research is discussed at greater length in our SPERI British Political Economy Brief, Young Workers’ Perspectives on the Economy, Crisis, Labour Market Change and Politics. The full results will be presented in a forthcoming report published by Unions21.