As was highlighted on their release, the results of the Unions21 Fair Work Commission employment survey contained some encouraging lessons for the trade union movement.
There is evidently an appetite amongst the UK workforce for a type of ‘social justice’ campaigns which the unions are well placed to deliver. Three quarters of working people are more likely to buy from Living Wage employers, 83% think that the national minimum wage is not sufficient to meet the living costs in Britain, and 72% would support a legal cap on the total bonus any individual can receive.
However, if we look beneath these headlines, and focus in on the views of young people (18-34) some interesting, and some worrying, trends are revealed. Some of these are well known. Young people, for instance, are less likely to be trade union members. Others can be directly linked to recent developments in the workplace. Younger workers place less emphasis on discrimination and temporary employment as barriers to ‘fairness’ in the workplace, likely reflecting increased regulatory protection against employment discrimination and the normalisation of a far more flexible labour market.
Some findings will come as more of a surprise. To start with, young workers are significantly more likely to think that power lies in the employee’s hands, rather than in the employer’s. Twenty seven per cent of those surveyed felt that this was the case, compared to 17.9% amongst the 35-54 age group, and 9.6% amongst those above 55.
Whether this reflects reality, or just a growing naivety, there are corresponding lessons to be learnt for unions. As can be seen in the graph below, significantly fewer members of the younger age group see protection from employers as a trade union priority compared to older groups. By contrast pay is growing importance to young workers.
These lessons are not as simple as they may seem. Contradictorily, compared to the rest of the working population members of this same age group are 12% more likely to think that pay is already fairly distributed in their workplace and 15% more likely to think that their wages have kept up with rising living costs over the last two years,. Assuming that these younger workers are employed in the same workplaces as their older colleagues this suggests a troubling acceptance of pay disparities and a lack of awareness of real term cuts in their salaries.
Furthermore, amongst younger workers there is a noticeable decline in interest in the ‘social justice’ agendas mentioned at the beginning of this article. Younger workers are 11% less likely to support a legal cap on bonuses and 6% less likely to oppose unpaid internships. This second point is particularly bizarre as younger workers are far more likely to be exploited by unpaid internships. It suggests either a growing acceptance of unpaid internships, or a growing desperation amongst young people, or both.
For the labour movement all of this suggests an emergent need for extensive education and awareness campaigns amongst young workers. The example of the normalisation of temporary work cited previously, a battle seemingly lost long ago, should be enough of a warning of what may happen if we do not act.
Here the Living Wage should be a source of optimism. Amongst the 18-34, which is 5% more likely to feel that the minimum wage is already adequate compared to the rest of the workforce, there is actually 7% more support for the concept of a Living Wage. Credit for this must go to those behind the Living Wage campaign, whose use of imaginative organising strategies and modern communication methods has evidently caught the imagination many young people. For the unions this dissonance suggests that the right campaign can still reach out to young workers, and can push back the incoming tide of apathy.
The germ of one such campaign is perhaps contained within these results. Young workers are impressively progressive in their views of paternity leave, with 60.3% of 18-34 year olds in support of the extension of paid paternity leave from two to six weeks, compared to 32% amongst the rest of the workforce. Similarly, young people are 14% more likely to support paid leave for those caring for seriously ill family members. Furthermore, as can be seen in the graph above, family friendly workplaces is an area which younger generations are increasingly identifying as a priority for their trade unions.
Modern marketing techniques often teach us to segment individuals based on their narrow self-interest. However, it would seem that in an increasingly isolated and fragmented society we need to look beyond the supposed individualism of younger generations, and consider the importance they place on the relationships they have with those around them. There are few easy answers for trade unions today, but protection of the family and an emphasis on localised relationships, two things which are, coincidentally, closely associated with the Living Wage, would seem a sensible starting point.
Unions21 will be at the NASUWT conference on Sunday to take part in a discussion on young people and fair work.