From the TUC


17 Nov 2016, By

We all know that the traditional ‘9 to 5’ working day no longer exists for a large proportion of young workers. With the increases in zero hours, insecure contracts and more people working night shifts, I think it’s time for an update to the seminal Dolly Parton smash hit to better reflect our modern working lives.*

Something that is often not as widely reported – but nonetheless adds another level of insecurity to young workers – is the issue of underemployment. This is when you have a job, but it doesn’t give you as many hours as you’d like to work. Perhaps you want to work full time, but there aren’t any full time jobs available that match your skills or where you live, so you have no other choice but to take on fewer hours. Not having enough hours means you’re less likely to get the income needed to have a decent quality of life.

The TUC has shown that young people are far more likely to be underemployed than older workers. However, Britain’s young core workers are especially likely to be underemployed – they are 60% more at risk of underemployment than employees in general. Particularly strikingly, over a third (35.7%) of Britain’s young core workers currently working part-time said that they do so because they are unable to find a full-time job.

But why are so many of Britain’s young core workers unable to find fulfilling full time work? Researchers such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation point to the usual suspect – the 2008 financial crisis – a crisis that young workers in the UK did nothing to cause. Since then underemployment has increased among all age groups, but the prevalence is greater for younger workers.

This is likely in part due to the sectors that Britain’s young core workers are concentrated in (almost half work in retail, hospitality and social care). TUC research shows just how common ‘short hour’ contracts are in retail. This set up is popular with employers as it allows them to adjust the amount of staff for when they ‘need’ them during busier periods. I once got a Christmas temp job at a popular high street shop and was offered a guaranteed eight hours a week, for an eight week period. I couldn’t even take up another short contract at other shops, as their peak trading hours were all the same. So I took on some evening shifts in a call centre to work round it, on a contract of twelve guaranteed hours a week, although I regularly worked around eighteen hours there.

It is essential that unions challenge underemployment practices in the same way they challenge exploitation that can arise from bad employment practices, casual contracts and the gig economy. Britain’s young core workers aren’t always aware of the role of trade unions, so it is important that we address the issues that would make a real difference to them in the workplace.

*I realise that this is probably quite an outdated reference for most young “born after 1990” union members, but I just really like Dolly Parton.


Britain’s young core workers are the voices that are missing from our movement. They are aspirational, dynamic and want to be successful. But they are often trapped in low income work without the opportunity to progress or achieve what they want.

We’ve identified ten challenges facing Britain’s young core workers, and challenge unions to meet them. Check back here for the next challenge and read the full report.


  1. John
    Nov 18th 2016, 1:16 am

    Thankyou for your very good & important article Kathryn Mackridge.

    I more than hope that your Brexit situation will not be used by ruthless employers as another means of further exploiting workers, young or ‘old’!