For Generation Y, trade unions will need to be a springboard not a safety net
Unions exist to represent everyone at work. But the people who are currently engaging with the union movement are aging and not being replaced by a younger cohort. Just 9.3% of low and middle earning 21-30 year olds are currently in a union.
Why, despite often being under-employed, over-qualified or subject to zero-hours contracts, does this group seldom seek labour representation? Why don’t youngsters working in the retail, service and care sectors embrace collective solidarity in the way young miners or factory workers might have done a generation or two ago?
The TUC’s Living for the Weekend report aimed to understand why Britain’s ‘young core workers’ rarely join unions. By ‘young core workers’ it refers to the large group of employed 21- to 30-year-olds who aren’t university-educated and who are paid less than £20,000 a year.
The answers aren’t simple, and the report makes essential reading for anyone looking to really understand ‘Generation Y’.
We at TCC contributed to the latter parts of the research, which explores the attitudes and motivations which might underpin youngsters’ unwillingness to unionise. To do this we used a tool called Values Modes, which looks at core motivations.
The outcomes showed that ‘young core workers’ were disproportionately driven by values relating to the esteem of others. (We call these ‘Prospector’ values in the report). They were optimistic, aspirational, image-conscious and individualistic – motivated by opportunity, competition and convenience.
They were much less likely than average, for instance, to agree with the statement “I’m not at all driven to get to the top, for me success is just an illusion”. And they were much more likely than most to say that “at work titles and grades are important to show how well I’m doing compared to others”.
Our findings about ‘young core workers’ were very much in keeping with what the journalist Jason Beattie anecdotally calls the Uber Generation, a “fluid, un-beholden” cohort who, he argues:
“care little who provides their schools or collects their taxes, still less whether that service is provided by staff who are unionised or wedded to particular ideology. Their only concern will be whether it caters for them with the same efficiency and immediacy as YouTube or Instagram.”
It also chimed with the conclusions of a 2011 Government report on Generation Y, which pointed out that modern youngsters “believe the role of state should be more focused on providing opportunities and less on managing the risks individuals face.”
All of this may make difficult reading for trade unionists looking to recruit a new generation. At first glance it appears to create a potential values impasse.
Yet it is important to remember that this cohort is preoccupied with things which are, in a sense egalitarian, such as life chances and their ability to not be held back by circumstance or by the external frameworks and limitations of society. They simply look at issues from the ‘other end of the telescope’, as it were – as individuals rather than as a group.
This leads them to be more optimistic and to have strong self-efficacy, meaning that the support unions provide must be couched in terms of offering a springboard rather than a safety net.
In practical terms this might range from ensuring that flexible work pays, through to supporting the self-employed as they try to start up small businesses. But it in no sense means that unions must capitulate or even compromise on the core things they stand for.
As the aforementioned 2011 government report mentioned earlier goes on to say, “younger people are no less likely to think that specific groups, such as the elderly, the disabled and low income working families need to be supported.” They are merely less likely to fee these safety nets are things they themselves need.
They are merely less likely to feel these safety nets are things they themselves need.
The IPPR’s Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly recently wrote that failure to adapt to these sorts of changes have left unions “invisible” across many parts of the private service sector. They call this an issue that has, for a generation, been “sidestepped”. Living for the Weekend offers a starting place for beginning to address it.
But the report also shows that we should be careful of allowing the most eloquent and educated voices of the younger generation to be its only spokespeople. As the data on Brexit voting showed, there is a significant difference between ‘young people’ and ‘young middle-class people’.
A recent Intergenerational Committee report on voter turnout found the same thing, concluding that in elections “degree-educated-to-non-degree-educated turnout gaps have widened significantly.”
So while the new generation of young activists offers great potential for unions, Living for the Weekend shows that not all young people see things in the same way.
– A version of this blog originally featured on Left Foot Forward.