Archive for the ‘employment’ Category

Young people and the post-crisis precarity: the abnormality of the ‘new normal’

Craig Berry and Sean McDaniel draw upon research with focus groups and an online community exercise to examine the attitudes of young people in relation to the apparent ‘normalisation’ of precarity in the post-2008 economy. They find that although young people recognise the abnormality of labour market conditions, they nevertheless fail to see value in conventional forms of trade union organisation.

The 2008 crisis crystallised the trend towards ‘precarious’ labour market conditions – stagnation in earnings growth, skills under-utilisation, labour market ‘hollowing out’, and the emergence of ‘gig economy’ practices – which disproportionately affect young people. Insecure employment is not new, especially in lower-skilled occupations, although it may have reached a new peak since the crisis. Indeed, two decades ago, Richard Sennett warned of ‘flexible capitalism’, wherein uncertainty and instability were becoming ‘woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism’.

However, today’s young people are perhaps the first cohort to have experienced the shift towards precarity on a large scale, across occupational groups. In a landmark 2018 book, the late Andy Furlong et al. refer to the spread of precarious labour market conditions in recent decades in the UK as a ‘new normal’, which has built up over decades and accelerated in the context of the crisis from 2008.

Yet the perspective of young people themselves has been relatively absent from academic debates on the advance of precarious work. Our research seeks to develop our understanding of this new normality of precarity by inquiring how it has been internalised into the attitudes of today’s young workers. Too often, young people’s understanding of their economic circumstances is assumed rather than investigated; or, a relatively politically engaged and media-savvy minority of young people is assumed to be representative of the cohort as a whole.

We conducted a series of focus groups with 18-25 year-olds (in Manchester, Grantham and London, supplemented by a nationwide online discussion forum) in October 2017. The groups had a mix of male and female, and graduate and non-graduate participants, with the exception of one of the sessions in London, which was composed of only graduates (this reflects our interest in distinguishing between different groups of young people – we must be careful not assume the young think, and act, as one).

We investigated their attitudes to work, the economy and, importantly, industrial relations. Drawing a link between wider labour market processes and young people’s attitudes to trade unions, we interrogated the notion of ‘normalisation’ itself by considering if, how, and why young people seek to operate and succeed (or simply survive) within this economic environment, rather than resist it (through, for example, forms of collective action).

We found that young people’s experience of the ‘new normal’ of precarious labour market conditions has been internalised within their attitudes to a significant degree. This does not mean, however, that changes have been accepted passively or unknowingly. Rather, there is a recognition amongst these people of the novelty of their socio-economic circumstances, and thus frustration and disquiet at the nature of these circumstances. The ‘new normal’ is in fact recognised as abnormal. There was clear anger expressed at the way in which current economic conditions of the post-crisis environment, including the legacy of the economic crisis and phenomena such as Brexit, have affected the life chances of young people.

Nevertheless, we also found, as others have, that young people feel that insecure labour market conditions are simply ‘part and parcel’ of the economic order they expect to confront throughout their lifecourse. This attitude means they focus on how they can succeed within this inherited structure rather than on pursuing structural change. There is a degree of resignation to a situation wherein precarity is deemed largely immutable. Accordingly, it seems many young people understand the prospect of improving labour market outcomes in terms of personal development and their ability to successfully navigate this more competitive environment (an attitude also identified elsewhere). (We found some attitudinal differences between graduates and non-graduates, with the former more concerned about unmet expectations from their career, for instance, and the latter more concerned by general degradation of economic conditions. Yet these are differences of degree rather than being fundamental in nature.)

Our research shows that antipathy towards trade unions (even if trade unionism is conceived in fairly positive terms) can be associated with this perspective, insofar as membership is not deemed particularly helpful to young people plotting their career while navigating precarious labour market conditions.

Most participants reported that they wanted trade unions to craft an offer more resonant to their individual ambitions for their careers – and were unaware of services offered by unions which might already be meeting this need. They were not particularly interested in being represented by trade unions in the workplace – with some young people particularly critical of unions seeking to represent members’ interests via political engagement, reflective of a wider ‘anti-politics’ sentiment (our fieldwork was conducted just after the so-called ‘youthquake’ election in 2017).

Of course, if young people lack knowledge of trade unions, it is perhaps because the information they are presented with is not deemed salient to their experience of industrial relations. (We detected few differences between graduates and non-graduates regarding specific views on trade unions; interestingly, there were few, if any, explicit suggestions by participants that there might exist social class-based divisions within age cohorts.)

Overall, the 2008 economic crisis underpins much of what young people believe about the economy and their own place within it – investigating the impact on crises on generational identities is an area where further research would be especially welcome. This sense of injustice among today’s young people – dealing with a crisis they did not create – has been compounded by the Brexit vote, which young people report has created manifold uncertainties for their future lives. Our research reveals therefore a relatively strong sense of age-related identity among today’s young people in which, rightly or wrongly, they believe their political and economic experiences are unique, or uniquely difficult, compared to recent cohorts. The long-term implications of such a perspective for industrial relations and political participation – and how progressive political actors might seek to accommodate it – remain uncertain.


About the Author

Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Economic and Industrial Democracy (open access basis). The original research was funded by Unions21.

Craig Berry is Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University.




Sean McDaniel is Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).


Underemployment among part-time workers may have detrimental psychological consequences

Victoria Mousteri, Michael Daly, and Liam Delaney outline how underemployment affects well-being. They find that underemployment predicts meaningful increases in distress in two UK cohorts – an effect that is reversed when the underemployed find full-time work.

The potential psychological effects of atypical and precarious employment arrangements are attracting increasing attention among academic and policy researchers. The UK economy is approaching ‘full employment’ and the jobless rate has dropped below pre-recession levels. Yet, for many workers these employment levels have not meant high quality jobs. More employees now find themselves underemployed than before the recession and many more are on zero-hours contracts. Furthermore, when considered together, the total number of underemployed and zero hours workers has remained remarkably stable since the recession in contrast to the improving picture of employment rates more generally.

Underemployment (or hours-underemployment specifically) is an intrinsically undesirable state, defined as working part-time while preferring to work more hours. In a recent study, we examined whether this persistent employment hardship could have detrimental mental health consequences. It is not difficult to imagine why this may be the case. Hours-underemployment is linked to uncertainty, reduced control over working hours, in-work poverty and reduced well-being. We argue that understanding the psychological harms of underemployment is crucial for motivating the design of policies aiming to protect workers and prevent labour force detachment and poverty.

To examine the contribution of hours-underemployment to psychological distress, we operationalised the International Labour Organization (1998) definition of underemployment, defining underemployment as working below 30 hours per week in the UK context and preferring to work more hours. Distress was assessed with a well-validated measure (the 12-item General Health Questionnaire) and we took two important steps to consider self-selection biases and reverse causality.

First, drawing on the very rich information collected as part of the National Child Development Study, we compared part-time workers preferring to work more hours with full-time workers. Using propensity score matching, we constructed two comparable samples of underemployed and full-time employed workers that had similar probabilities to end up in hours-underemployment based on a broad set of demographic, cognitive, psychosocial, and economic background factors. We found that being in hours-underemployment predicts substantially higher levels of psychological distress compared to working full-time (β = .22-.25).

Next, we drew on the British Household Panel Survey to explore the psychological impact of moving between underemployment and full-time employment. As previously, we used analytical techniques to account for unobserved differences among workers that might explain transitioning between different types of employment as well as their psychological wellbeing. We found that moving from full-time employment to underemployment was associated with increased distress levels across 18 years of observations.

The estimated effects were comparable to longitudinal estimates of the psychological effect of becoming unemployed (i.e. β = .19). Critically, our results also suggested the adverse psychological consequences of hours-underemployment are reversible. Transitioning from hours-underemployment to full-time positions predicted a decrease in distress that closely matched the increase associated with becoming hours-underemployed.

We also tested alternative combinations of working part-time and working time preferences to distinguish between the contribution of employment type and individual preferences to the observed impact. Our sensitivity analysis revealed that the combination of working less than 30 hours per week and preferring to work more hours was associated with the greatest and most consistent increases in psychological distress.

Somewhat surprisingly, job earnings and perceptions of job security explained only a small portion (≈10%) of the psychological impact of underemployment. We suggest two reasons for this. First, the inferior working conditions of underemployment in affecting time structure, social contact, and status, were only partly captured by our income and job security measures. Second, we did not assess the potential broader impact of underemployment in depriving psychological needs of competence and autonomy, curtailing work ambitions, and hampering social relationships and family formation. An extensive analysis of the paths linking underemployment to poor psychological health is now needed.

In addition to our work on underemployment we now aim to examine the psychological impact of the recent proliferation of zero-hours contracts. Such contracts are associated with poorer self-assessed general health and an increased risk of psychological distress. We anticipate distressing effects similar to underemployment because zero-hours contracts are associated with many of the disadvantages of underemployment along with high levels of insecurity, uncertainty, and pressure to accept unfavourable hours.

There is a stark divide in the United Kingdom between those employed on secure full-time contracts and those working on precarious employment contracts. Underemployment has outstripped unemployment in prevalence over the past decade and may have similar psychological implications. Our research suggests that the divide between full time workers and the underemployed is not only associated with financial inequality, it may be generating mental health inequalities.

In the UK, the effectiveness of the policies implemented to prevent unfavourable treatment of part-time workers and improve quality of part-time jobs has been criticised. For example, Bell argues that the Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000 was not successful in removing discrimination against part-time workers or in supporting transitions into full-time employment especially in low-skill, low-wage sectors with high female presence. The findings of our research suggest that policy makers should monitor the implementation of current regulation more closely and consider the design of interventions aiming to improve the working conditions and psychological well-being of underemployed workers. The work of Bell and Blanchflower documenting high rates of underemployment in the UK and throughout the OECD underscore the importance of these issues internationally.


Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Social Science & Medicine.

About the Authors

Victoria Mousteri is Senior Economist at Alma Economics and a member of the Stirling Behavioural Science Centre.



Michael Daly is Associate Professor in Psychology/Behavioural Science at Maynooth University.



Liam Delaney is Professor of Economics at UCD and Visiting Professor of Economics at Stirling University.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

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