Young people and insecure work: lessons learned from the pandemic

In 2021, I led a research project (funded by the British Academy) about young people’s experiences of work during the pandemic.  It was a small-scale, longitudinal, qualitative study doing interviews with young people (n = 21) in the Spring of 2021 (at height of a national lockdown) and six months later in the Autumn of 2021 at a period when the economy was opening (though many Covid restrictions continued).  It was based in Greater Manchester in England.

What we hoped to achieve by doing the project?

The research was originally conceived in 2019 in response to existing concerns about young people in the labour market. However, as it coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, we sought to capture in-depth insights into young people’s experiences and perspectives of insecure work at a unique period of labour market disruption.

In consultation with participants, it also aimed to generate recommendations about what can be done to support young people to move into and progress into Decent Work.  These recommendations sought to look beyond the pandemic to address possibilities for the future.

What have we found out?

All the young people who participated had work circumstances disrupted by Covid-19. None had been in a secure working situation prior to the pandemic and for many the on-set of Covid-19 led to the loss or reduction of work. At the time of the first stage, ten of the twenty-one had benefited from some furlough payment and six had claimed Universal Credit. Covid-19 exacerbated existing insecurities. 

At that stage, adverse consequences related to economic status, mental health, temporal uncertainty, and work/career identity.

However, young people found ways to resist such consequences.  Many demonstrated individual adaptability in improvising to circumstances, others had benefited from varied social support systems (including careers advisory and related services). Participants articulated strong social values and awareness, e.g., recognising how the structure of the economy leads to insecure work (writ large during the pandemic) and how certain groups of workers face specific challenges (such as in creative jobs that are often freelance).

Conducting a second stage (six months after first) illustrated how circumstances change over time. There was considerable movement and change for participants in six months. For most, their situation had got better, e.g., the number in a distinctly marginal status had reduced from five to two.   However, work remained a painful experience for some young people for whom circumstances continued to be uncertain. 

The disruption of the pandemic had not diminished a desire for meaningful work, which can provide progression, autonomy, and social connectedness.

We asked young people about Decent Work and what they wanted for the future. Their responses suggested an awareness of the nuances of both objective and subjective measures of decent work their comments addressed: earning enough to get by; happiness/satisfaction; dignity/being valued; opportunities for progression; having rights and protection.

So not dissimilar from what people of any age want! Findings challenge the idea that generational values are dramatically different (e.g., between Generation Z/ Millennials/Generation X/ Baby Boomers). What is different is the context that is faced by generations, and they must adapt to.  

I’ve argued elsewhere that Decent Work as a concept provides careers practitioners with an important tool to use with clients in critically evaluating the labour market.

Lessons for the future

Our recommendations address careers advice, good employment, job centres and trade unions. The summary report covers these in more detail.  The following provide some issues to prioritise.

Available and timely careers advice and guidance is important for all young people. A stronger infrastructure needs to exist to make this happen and for it to be available to all young people, not just those who are unemployed or are in education.  Current funding and provision in this space often via Third Sector and public organisations has been volatile. The Career Guidance Guarantee provides a way forward.

Young people appreciate and recognise employers who have good HR practices, including good policies around terms and conditions, employee wellbeing, employment contracts, good training options, diversity, and inclusion policies. The Youth Employment Charter and Youth Friendly Badge also provide a way to evidence employer commitment. 

Young people need to be treated differently by Job Centres. Processes are off-putting to many young people especially those who do not know what they want to do and have limited skills/experience. Work coaches should have more discretion in identifying what is a positive outcome for a young person.   The pandemic allowed for more flexible job centre/young person interactions that can be learned from.  Quality of interaction with job centre staff appears very variable.

Young people want to engage collectively in organisations and activities that can make a positive difference to worker conditions. However, few are members of a union.  Trade unions can be an important source of advice and support for young workers. Cost can be a barrier for joining so Trade unions should adapt membership fees appropriately. Unions can help educators by designing and creating suitable materials to be used by careers educators.

You are invited to hear more

If you want to hear more, I will be sharing summary findings for the first time on the 8th September at a hybrid event – an event which is in collaboration with the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) at University College London (UCL.). The event will be hosted at Manchester Metropolitan University (where I work). All very welcome in person or virtually.

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