Let’s not lose sight of quality jobs and better long-term outcomes for young people in the response to Covid-19

Blog posts

31 Jul 2020

Daryl Sweet

Daryl Sweet, Health Foundation Research Fellow

Follow @darylsweet

The urgent focus of the youth employment sector is rightly on reducing the immediate impact of Covid on unemployment – keeping young people in jobs, helping the newly unemployed back into work, and providing opportunity guarantees to young people to ensure they have routes forward both in education and employment. There is a strong rationale for access to employment being the priority, given the evidence for long-term scarring effects of inactivity in young people and the anxieties and uncertainties that young people will be facing right now around income, next steps and higher than ever competition for opportunities.

The good news is that support to protect young people from the worst consequences of the recession is emerging, with the Government’s plan for subsidies for Traineeships, Apprenticeships and the Kickstart Programme. But, as our Director Tony Wilson outlines, many challenges remain here, including how we coordinate this response locally and support those already disadvantaged in the labour market.

Beyond this immediate response, our aim should be to ensure long-term positive outcomes for the health and wellbeing of young people and – as I’ve argued – the solutions put in place now, provide opportunities for meaningful system change. Good quality work can play a key role here, underpinning other key health influences such as income, housing, social networks as well as psychological factors such as meaning, purpose, identity, and self-esteem. As IES demonstrated, the trends over the past 20 years have been for diminishing job quality for young people. We should be alive to the risk that the Covid-19 recovery sees further increases in precarious and low-quality employment.

There is evidence that any job is better than no job for young people in the long term. The outcomes we measure and the population we focus on, both play a major role in reaching this conclusion. Indeed, there is also strong evidence that insecure or low quality work causes a similar threat to mental and physical health as unemployment. Precarious employment is now seen as a social determinant of health, but work quality is about more than how secure the job is.

What then do we mean by a quality job? There is no consensus definition. CIPD are a leading voice in this field and define good work as being fairly rewarded, having work-life balance, opportunities to develop, fulfilment, a supportive environment, employee voice and choice, and being physically and mentally healthy. This is a high standard and clearly many jobs pre-crisis did not reach this level.

Indeed, using a broad measure of work quality, the health foundation have shown that over a third of employees in the UK reported being in low-quality work in 2016/2017, and this group reported over twice as much poor health as those who said there were no negative aspects to their work.

Thus, in the short term, we might assess that lower quality work provides a necessary income and first step in the labour market for young people, but unless we keep our eye on the prize of progression to better quality employment, there will likely be scarring in the longer-term.

In order to support employers to provide better jobs, and ultimately to hold government and employers to account, we need to measure job quality - hence a consensus would be useful! Many of our commonly used job quality indicators are ‘objective’ or narrowly focused but clearly there is an important subjective element to job quality and a broad range of factors that impact this perception. Young people’s perception of job quality could be important in engaging and supporting them into work over the coming months and years, as they balance concerns around health and safety post-lockdown, with a desperation for ‘any’ job where opportunities are lacking. Making matters worse is an environment where improvements to job quality and stability will likely be secondary to the focus on getting people out of unemployment.

There are lots of questions to answer here and this is something I’ll be working on over the coming months – what is quality employment for young people and how do we ensure access to it, even as an employment crisis threatens the availability of good quality work? As we look to long term system change, I believe we can aim higher for young people than ‘any job will do’.

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