Fair Work for Young People: Mission Impossible?

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.


Fiddling whilst a tsunami of age discrimination hits older job seekers

Chris BallLast week TAEN published the latest edition of its 50+ Job Seekers Survey. In some ways the results are predictable – surveys so often tell us things that we already know by instinct – but there are surprising insights too.


ONS figures show more older people in work and there is a general feeling that older people are doing reasonably well in the labour market.


The sad fact is however, that deeply embedded structural disadvantages and ingrained ageist attitudes bar hundreds of thousands of older people from returning to work. It is clear that older job seekers struggle harder than most.


Overwhelmingly they want to work because of financial need, a desire to feel valued and the social interaction work brings. Many are ‘worried’ or ‘desperate’ about not working.


They identify adverse attitudes by recruiters, mismatches of their own skills or qualifications with employers’ needs and the national focus on youth unemployment as being among the reasons for their problems.


These barriers to older job seekers continue more than six years after age discrimination was outlawed by the 2006 Age Regulations and two years after the end of the Default Retirement Age, allowing people to be forcibly retired at 65.


Today, despite these reforming legal changes, the challenge of ending age discrimination is as relevant as ever. Only one in ten over 50s looking for work think age discrimination law had helped them.


47 per cent of our older job seekers believed that the law had not had any benefit at all. One respondent, a former managing director seeking work, commented, “Age discrimination is rife in my view. Employers can work out your age with ease.”


Some respondents even volunteered the view that repeal of the DRA had made it harder to get work!


These findings cast an interesting perspective on seminar I attended in Rome to talk to Italian HR mangers about the global phenomenon of population ageing and its implications for employers.


Italian businesses are seriously worried, as are their Governments – when  they manage to get them in place. (The wrangling over coalition alliances following the recent inclusive elections continues). The proportion of the Italian population over 65 has doubled since 1950 and will continue to grow, reaching 33 per cent of the total population by 2050. The average number of children born to Italian women is 1.41 – well short of replacement levels. So leaving aside massive immigration, the Italian labour force is shrinking.


Shrinking and ageing at the same time. Logic says that working up to existing pension ages would be a start. As long ago as 2001 the Stockholm meeting of the European Council of Ministers set a target of 50% for employment rates of people in the 55-64 age range across Europe. In Italy only 36.6 % of the older workforce is in employment.


Over the past decades across Europe, millions of older workers have been eased out of their jobs as one round of industrial restructuring follows another. The early quitting culture has stuck and become an expectation. Now like so many mucky pigeons coming home to roost, the problem appears as an unwelcome threat to economies that simply won’t have the people to do the jobs their businesses need in future.


Hence, on one hand, we have in countries with the most acute demographic threats, emerging concern to find ways of making it possible for people to work longer. At the same time, bizarrely, we have massive age discrimination at the point of hiring.


I couldn’t resist reflecting with my Italian audience on the homily of Nero fiddling whilst the fires raged outside!


Here in the UK, how do we respond to our respondents who claimed their problems could be explained by employers being charier about hiring people who want to work longer, now the DRA has been removed?


Perhaps they are right.


We have a labour market that is ambivalent in its attitudes to older people. Employers will allow them to work longer in the same jobs if they wish but they bottle out of offering them new jobs, believing they may want to work for ever.


People are working longer in part because they can choose to remain in work longer but the lot of the older person who has left a job is problematic.


He or she is likely to fall outside the person specification offered by employers to recruitment agencies, simply on grounds of age. And there is significant evidence that some recruitment agencies connive and fail to challenge ageist attitudes.
It seems clear that the law is being flouted with impunity and there is a presumption that, ‘of course employers will discriminate by age if they wish to so.’ The eradication of age discrimination in employment is a far from complete.


The time has surely come to assess the effectiveness of the law against age discrimination in recruitment. One speaker on Thursday spoke of employers and politicians ignoring a demographic tsunami in Italy, but it is not only the Romans who emulate the feats of Nero.