Any work will do? Young people’s work futures and the search for good work

Blog posts

22 Oct 2019

Dafni Papoutsaki

Dafni Papoutsaki, Research Fellow

There are many ways to tell a story. I can tell you about Bethan, 18, from south Wales. She is studying in the sixth form while working part-time at a job conveniently close to home. I can also tell you about Nairn, 23, from Scotland. He attended university as he was prompted to do by his school and family. Coming from a less well-off background, Nairn was fortunate enough to be financially supported by a small bursary on top of his student loan. Although a recent graduate, he has already worked in jobs in his field that have helped him accrue work experience and skills. All sounds good, right?

But as I said, there are many ways to tell a story. Bethan’s job pays the lowest rate, which is not enough to cover much more than her transportation costs, food, and stationery for school. There is a bigger problem with her 16-hour part-time job however; there are no standard hours, making it difficult for her to plan her schedule properly or get a second job. Also, remember Nairn’s jobs that help him gather working experience and skills? They are voluntary. The remunerated jobs that he found as a recent graduate were very low pay, with no security and few guaranteed hours. Because of this job insecurity and low income, he lives with his parents as he does not make enough to afford to live independently. 

The labour market for young people is changing. Compared to ten years ago, things appear to have improved if we look at the decreasing youth unemployment rates, the increasing years of education (caused partly by increases in compulsory education), or the dropping numbers of young people who find themselves in the NEET[1] category. But that’s not the whole story.

Even though unemployment has been dropping, the combination of available hours of work and pay levels have led to a sluggish increase in earnings for young people; as pay levels are unlikely to increase significantly in the short-term, more and more young people need to work more hours so they can afford a living. However, more hours do not seem to be being offered to them, as 1 in 7 young people are underemployed, meaning they would like to work more hours than they currently do. Furthermore, even though educational levels are increasing, more and more young people who achieve higher levels of education end up working in routine, manual jobs; in 2018 one in three young people were downgrading in the labour market in this manner, and hence not utilising the skills they acquired through intermediate and higher education, compared to one-quarter twenty years ago.

Our recent report on the quality of work for young people commissioned by the Health Foundation, discusses how poor quality and insecure work can impact negatively on young people’s future health and wellbeing.  Our research describes the youth labour market in the UK by looking further than the standard indicators of unemployment, hourly payment, and the number of young people who are not in education, training, or employment.

In order to better tackle the problems faced by young people today we need to tell both stories. By no means should we take our focus away from main indicators of labour market performance like youth unemployment or the number of young people who are not in education, training, or employment. Even though things have been getting better with respect to these indicators in the UK, there is still room for improvement. For example, while the UK did better than the average of the EU28 countries in terms of the number of young people in the NEET category in 2018, it was outperformed by many countries including Lithuania, Portugal, Slovenia, and Malta. You can see more on this here.  

At the same time, we should not ignore other influences on the quality of work for young people like increasing insecurity created by non-permanent jobs, zero-hour contracts, and bogus self-employment; the increasing underutilisation of young people’s acquired skills; the lack of training provisions to young people in the work place; or the unaffordability of independent living due to underemployment, low pay and high housing costs.

Offering a high-quality working environment to young people where they can grow their skills, learn, and earn a living in a job that offers security and reasonable compensation is a very important building block for a young person’s life. What’s more, we also need to be able to evaluate whether this is achieved against a measurable standard, as there are currently no clear measures on the quality of work. This is one of the main policy recommendations of our report, along with the proposal for investment in evaluations of `what works’ in the youth labour market, not only in terms of levels of employment, but also quality of work.

In terms of tackling the issues faced by young people today we suggest that an education, training and employment guarantee is introduced which ensures that young people who are not in education, training, or employment for more than four months are assisted back to work or education/training; improved outreach to those furthest from good quality work, making sure no young person is left behind; and targeted support should be offered to help more vulnerable groups (for example disabled young people) when the standard approach is inadequate.

Finally, as there already are interventions in place that aim at helping young people secure employment, another important recommendation of our report is that a more integrated and co-ordinated approach should be supported so that we can make the most out of the existing youth programs.

The youth labour market is changing, and it is creating new needs when it comes to supporting young people find good quality employment. This report identified some of the main new challenges and made recommendations that aspire to help address them. As we are trying to understand today’s youth labour market better, we need to make sure to look at all components that constitute good work, so that no young person is left behind.


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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.


[1]                      People Not in Education, Employment, or Training.