Underemployment and precarité: The new condition of youth?

Introduction: youth unemployment in Europe That socio-economic prospects for young people and young adults in Europe are inauspicious is an understatement. The global economic crisis of 2008 heralded challenging conditions for all European economies with unemployment, for instance, being most keenly felt by those seeking to make transitions to, or who are recent entrants to,


Introduction: youth unemployment in Europe

That socio-economic prospects for young people and young adults in Europe are inauspicious is an understatement. The global economic crisis of 2008 heralded challenging conditions for all European economies with unemployment, for instance, being most keenly felt by those seeking to make transitions to, or who are recent entrants to, the labour market. The youth unemployment rate in the European Union (EU) was more than double the overall rate in 2011 (European Commission, 2012). At the third quarter of 2012, 5.8 million young people (under the age of 25) in the EU were unemployed; a rate of 23.7 % and an increase of over 300,000 on the previous year (ibid.)

Of course, there are substantial variations within the EU. Compare the relatively low rates of youth unemployment in Germany (8.1 %) and Austria (9.0 %) with the astonishingly high levels found in Greece and Spain (57.6 % and 56.5 % respectively) (ibid.) Overall, over one in five young adults in the EU are out of work. At the time of writing, EU leaders announced they were planning a new €5 billion programme of apprenticeships and training to help “the lost generation” of young unemployed (a problem said to cost the EU €150 billion a year) (Reuters, 2013).

It is against this context that this article considers the labour market situation and prospects for young people. It takes the UK as its prime example, with occasional reference to the broader European situation (the UK’s rate of youth unemployment at the end of 2011, 22 %, stood at almost exactly the EU average, 22.1 %).

The paper argues that – whilst attention to the problem of unemployment as a consequence of global economic recession is, of course, understandable and necessary – this can distract attention from a wider and deeper problem of youth underemployment.

Two different examples are given. The first draws on empirical research from Teesside, North East England that demonstrates how some working-class young adults can be caught up in long-term churning between precarious, low quality jobs and unemployment. The second example moves up the social scale to examine evidence about the declining labour market value of university education in the UK (set in a discussion of the “myth of the high skills economy”). Although coming from less and more advantaged backgrounds, what unites these young adults’ work histories is an experience of underemployment.

Underemployment is understood here as a consequence of the lack of lasting, rewarding employment opportunities that meet the aspirations of young workers. Some contemporary theorists take the trends described in the paper as evidence of a profoundly changed set of circumstances for young people in Western industrialised countries, theorising youth as now occupying a new generation prone to downward social mobility or as part of a new global Precariat class. These ideas are discussed briefly in conclusion.

Labour market insecurity: disadvantaged young people and precarious transitions

A key problem with a singular focus on youth unemployment is that unemployment and employment are static categories that ignore the dynamism of youth transitions. This links to the problem of “young people not in education, employment or training (NEET)” as it came to be known in the UK during the 2000s.

Youth researchers have long described how transitions from school to the labour market (and transitions to adulthood more widely) are no longer stable, straightforward, linear or predictable (e.g. Furlong and Cartmel, 2007). Subjected to an array of institutional, economic and cultural changes over the past thirty years, they have become more complex, circuitous, extended and fluid (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005). Socially disadvantaged young people are more likely than others to experience transitions characterised by flux and rapid movement around different economic statuses (“unemployed” “In training”, “in education”, “employed”).

Research with which the author has been involved over the past fifteen years – The Teesside Studies of Youth Transitions and Social Exclusion – has highlighted the important issue of working-class young adults churning between low quality work and unemployment (e.g. Johnston et al., 2000; Webster et al., 2004; MacDonald and Marsh, 2005; Shildrick et al., 2010, 2012). Undertaken in neighbourhoods of multiple deprivation in Teesside, North East England, these studies comprise a qualitative, longitudinal investigation of disadvantaged young people’s transitions. The studies did not just examine the immediate post-school years but explored individuals’ pathways through their teens, twenties and, for some, into their thirties.

The Teesside Studies highlight the fluidity, complexity and precariousness of labour market experiences. Churning between insecure low paid jobs, poor quality training schemes and unemployment was the norm. The jobs that young people got were typically low paid, low skilled and, critically, insecure. They worked, for example, as cleaners, shop assistants, security guards, factory operatives, delivery drivers, care assistants, in bars and in fast-food restaurants. Jobs were terminated usually because of redundancy or because they were temporary, short-term contracts. It was rare for people to quit jobs or be dismissed from them. Interviewees recurrently moved between being employed and being unemployed over years, making little progress towards more secure, rewarding labour market positions.

Shildrick et al. (2012) find this to be a long-term pattern stretching into middle-age and argue against the policy orthodoxy that, for working-class young people, “churning” is a natural feature of transitions before they “settle” into occupations. Rather, it has become a standard feature of work histories for working-class people in neo-liberal capitalist economies (Byrne, 1999).

In sum, snapshot surveys that tell us rates of youth unemployment at a given moment draw attention away from the wider problem of young people moving from unemployment to precarious jobs and back again. This means that policy attention should shift, from “supply-side” measures that try to assist young people away from unemployment, to give much greater attention to “demand-side” policies that help create employment opportunities that are rewarding and lasting.  In the UK, government research has acknowledged that there are “high degrees of churn within the NEET group… only 1 % of young people are NEET at age 16 and 17 and 18” (Newton, 2009). For disadvantaged working-class young adults, a movement from unemployment to employment does not necessarily – and certainly rarely, for the Teesside informants – signify a solution to worklessness and wider social exclusion.

These Teesside studies have been at forefront, in the UK, of uncovering qualitatively the realities of the “low-pay, no-pay cycle” (Shildrick et al., 2012). Recent quantitative analysis has also confirmed the importance of a more dynamic view of labour market experiences and how these tie to social exclusion and poverty. Thus, Aldridge et al. (2012, 1) demonstrate that in the UK the populations of people in poverty and those out of work are not static: “while one in six people live in low income at any one time, around one in three has had a spell in low income over a four year period”. Similarly, they show that although around 1.6 million people are currently claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA is a main out of work welfare benefit), 4.8 million have claimed JSA at least once in the last two years. The turnover of people claiming JSA is substantial; around 42 % of JSA claims from the first quarter of 2012 were made within six months of a previous claim.

In the UK, virtually no social or youth policy attention has been directed towards “low-pay, no-pay cycle”. Officially, it is virtually unrecognised as a problem. The “NEET problem” has preoccupied UK governments, certainly from the late 1990s to 2010 (House of Commons Education Committee, 2010). In the UK – and more widely in Europe – perhaps the key response to high rates of youth unemployment has been to invest in human capital. This reads youth unemployment (and, on the rare times it is acknowledged, the problem of young people becoming trapped in precarious, low quality jobs) in large part as a consequence of the lack of skills possessed by the young unemployed (codified as formal educational qualifications).

For example, in one of the most recent studies, Crowley et al. (2013) undertook an international review to see what lessons could be learned for the UK from countries with lower youth joblessness. Their report includes several recommendations but emphasises the enhancement and expansion of vocational apprenticeships so that young people can become better skilled. It is true that rates of unemployment for the lesser qualified are higher than they are for the more qualified in almost all national contexts. Part of the rationale for the human capital/ skills investment approach is that labour markets are changing so that workers with low level skills are no longer needed to the extent that they were under mid-20th Century Fordism. Un- or semi-skilled jobs will wither away as a high-skills, information-based economy arrives. To compete for jobs, therefore, workers need to up-skill.

There is a significant danger with this argument. It employs a “weak” conceptualisation of social exclusion (Veit Wilson, 1998). It implies that the problem of unemployment rests with the characteristics of the unemployed – improve these characteristics and the unemployed become employed. Byrne (1999) presents a “strong” version of social exclusion;  high rates of unemployment and precarious employment are inevitable consequences of neo-liberal capitalist economies, rather than the “fault” of those needing jobs. This is because contemporary forms of capitalist economy in the West – built around the model of a ”flexible labour market” that pursues profitability by the more flexible use of labour – requires fewer workers in standardised, permanent positions and greater numbers to be available only as and when the firm requires this (Byrne, 1999; Standing, 2010). Byrne argues, in fact, that the “the low-pay, no-pay cycle” is the characteristic experience of social exclusion in societies like ours. This approach to conceptualising social exclusion, that looks to changing social and economic conditions rather than individual’s characteristics as causes, is preferred here. Further support for this approach to understanding youth comes when we consider the changing circumstances of better qualified young adults, including university graduates, in the UK.

The myth of “the high skills economy”: unemployment and underemployment

UK policies in respect of a high-skills economy were energised by the The Leitch Report, a government-commissioned survey into skills of the workforce. (2006).  Drawing upon it, the Labour government of the time argued that “of the 3.4 million unskilled jobs today, we will need only 600,000 by 2020” (Gordon Brown, Budget Speech, 2006). There has been no sign that the current UK Coalition government wavers from this thinking. Mansell (2010) argues, however, that this represents “a fundamental government misunderstanding of employers’ demand for qualifications among young people”. The Leitch Report (2006: 50) says, if proposed skills policies are successful, there may be 600,000 low skilled workers by 2020 – not 600,000 low skilled jobs. Even if the supply of better skilled workers increases this does not mean that there will be an equivalent demand from employers for those skills. In fact, labour market analysis by Lawton (2009) argues that although the numbers of unqualified jobseekers will have dropped to around 600,000 in 2020 (in line with the Leitch predictions), without concerted policy action the numbers of UK jobs requiring no qualifications is likely to remain at around 7.4 million.

More recent analysis (Sissons, 2011) reports that over the last decade or so the UK has witnessed a growth in the proportion of jobs at the bottom – and at the top – of the labour market leading to even further polarisation between “lousy” and “lovely” jobs. This process has gained added momentum since the global economic crisis, with jobs in the middle of the employment structure being hollowed out. Sissons says that:


...at the low-wage end of the labour market elementary jobs have also begun to increase since the recession for both men and women. This may be important because although the economy has begun creating jobs, a significant number of these are in the low-wage occupations (2011: 30).

Thus, at the bottom end of the wage distribution, there continues to be an abundance of low wage work in the UK; the sort of work done by the informants to the Teesside studies. Mason and colleagues (2008: 33) note that rates of low paid employment in the UK remain “far higher than thirty years ago” and are amongst the highest in Europe. This is the sort of work that does not require high level or indeed any qualifications (see Shildrick et al., 2012) and which was predicted to wither away under visions of a high-skills, information economy.

As one personnel manager for a large supermarket chain, interviewed for the Teesside research, said:  “I look at people’s qualifications because it is polite but I don’t take much notice of them”. Rather, possessing “the right attitude” and being physically and mentally capable of the job at hand are the key recruitment criteria at the bottom of the UK labour market (Shildrick et al., 2012). In the same vein, Keep and Mayhew (2010: 569) argue that emphasising up-skilling as the solution to unemployment or low-paid working ignores “the scale and persistence of low-paid employment within the UK economy”.

…the numbers of jobs requiring little or no qualification appears to be growing rather than shrinking. They report that employers at the lower end of the labour market find “little difficulty in filling vacancies” and show “little demand for a more skilled workforce”. ..…low-paid work in the domestic [UK] economy remains and someone has to undertake it if the economy and society are not to collapse (2010: 570).

The implications of this predicted mismatch between the supply of workers with higher level skills and qualifications, such as graduates, and the demand for such workers from employers are profound (MacDonald, 2011). One consequence is rising levels of UK graduate unemployment. This has shown steep increases since the 2008 recession; it stood at 14 % in December 2009, a rise of 25 % over the previous year (Thomson & Bekhradnia, 2010).

A second consequence is underemployment. This can be defined in different ways (e.g. ILO, n.d.; Scurry & Blenkinsopp, 2011; Aldridge et al., 2012) but Roberts’ approach is useful because it includes “high rates of youth unemployment” as well as “high proportions of employment in part-time, temporary and otherwise marginal jobs” – as with the Teesside interviewees – “and over-qualification relative to the jobs that young people obtain” (2009: 10).

IPPR (2010) define underemployment as those working on a part-time basis who would prefer longer hours, finding that one in five of the underemployed are aged between 16 and 24. Aldridge et al. (2012) regard underemployment in the UK as including unemployed people (2.6 million), economically inactive people who want work (2.4 million) and, like IPPR, people working part-time because they cannot find full-time work (1.4 million). In total, they conclude that 6.4 million people in the UK are underemployed; a rate that has increased substantially during the 2000s. Of course, underemployment is not just a problem for the UK. The International Labour Organisation (ILO, 2010) reports that underemployment is particularly prominent in Asia, Central and South Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. High rates of youth underemployment in Africa are reported by the World Bank (2009: 25), resulting from “the lack of productive jobs to meet the supply of youth” and this problem “has fuelled unrest in North Africa” (Canadian Press, 2011). Indeed, the underemployment of young adults, including university graduates, was widely reported as a significant factor underlying the revolutions and revolts of the Arab Spring (e.g. Tapscott, 2011).

Underemployment as over-qualification for the job is particularly visible when we consider the situation of university graduates. Data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (2012) showed that the proportion of recent university graduates employed in lower skilled jobs increased from just over a quarter (26.7 %) in 2001 to over a third (35.9 %) by the final quarter of 2011. Here “recent graduate” means graduated within the last six years; we are clearly not just talking about the normal process of graduates taking time to “settle into” higher level jobs. It is also important to dwell on the definition of “low skilled work”. This refers to the sort of work that people are qualified for on the completion of UK compulsory education (at age 16).

Clearly there has been more than a little hype about the economic demand for high skills in the UK economy (see Brown et al., 2011 for an extended discussion). There is no doubt that particular forms of further and higher education (on particular courses at particular colleges and “top” universities) are the high road to the “lovely” jobs at the top of the labour market described by Sissons (2011). For many others, however, these extended educational transitions are now the low road to lower quality, lower paid, “lousy” jobs nearer the bottom of the labour market. Ainley and Allen (2012: 1) describe the outcome of the “massification” of higher education as a “disguised proletarianisation of the professions for which HE supposedly prepares its graduates with many reduced to para-professions at best”. The consequence for young people is that they are forced into “running up a down escalator in a class structure gone pear-shaped”, striving harder to attain increasingly devalued educational qualifications as ‘holding a degree becomes a new “norm” for hopes of securing “core” employment (ibid: 8). Byrne (1999: 142) observed the same process over ten years earlier: “all that is on offer for most children who achieve even at the level of degree is white collar or semi-professional work which at best offers something like the remuneration and stability of skilled manual employment in the Fordist era”.

Conclusion: a new Generation? A new Class?

On the basis of extensive, long-term studies of youth transitions in Western and Eastern Europe, Roberts (2009) reaches the following striking conclusion:

Underemployment is now a global phenomenon in youth labour markets. In the West it is usually seen as a sign that young people need to catch up with the demands of the new knowledge economy. In Eastern Europe it is typically construed as a sign that the countries’ transitions into properly functioning market economies are still incomplete. Not so: underemployment is the 21st century global normality for youth in the labour market (2009: 4; emphasis added).

It is important to note that Roberts’ conclusion was based on research carried out prior to the global economic crash of 2008 (e.g. youth unemployment in the UK started rising in the early 2000s, in a time of relative national economic prosperity). He is not pointing to reversible consequences of recession but to deeper, structural changes in the nature of the global economy as they affect Europe and the prospects for its young workers.

Of course, it would be perverse to argue that the recessionary troughs bear no responsibility for the unemployment and underemployment described in this article. An important argument emerging recently in youth studies scholarship (e.g. Roberts, 2012; Furlong et al., 2012), however, is that we are witnessing the formation of a “new social generation” across Western industrialised economies, whose life worlds and prospects  – as a consequence of long-run social, cultural but mainly economic change – are now defined by insecurity. Compared with the generation of the post-war baby-boomers, the current generation of young people faces tougher conditions and restricted prospects across several spheres. Limited opportunities to make successful transitions through education and into rewarding, standard employment (the subject of this article) and to establish independent living away from the parental home are just two examples. This is the first generation, argues Roberts (2012), which is likely to experience downward social mobility compared with the parent generation. For the majority, the chances of social descent outweigh the chances of social ascent.

The theme of precarité, of the insecurity of life, is also central to Guy Standing’s ambitious and highly influential book, The Precariat (2011). Standing argues that since the 1980s a seemingly new category of workers has emerged on the global stage. Designated “The Precariat”, the emergence of this new group is encapsulated by, and predicated on, the idea of “the flexible labour market”, that is, the sort pursued progressively by Western neo-liberal governments.

The Precariat can be understood as a new class, defined by their insecurity of work and life conditions under neo-liberalism. For Standing, the Precariat includes the unemployed, the working poor and the insecurely employed, all of whom lack a secure work-based identity normally associated with building a “career” and belonging to an occupational community. The Precariat is said to have a global reach and diverse, mass membership. Young people are argued to be at its core. For Standing, working-class young people deprived of the standards and traditions of work and working culture known by their parents and grandparents (like those in our Teesside studies) and downwardly mobile un- or underemployed graduates shuttling between careerless, dead-end jobs both figure in the membership of the Precariat. The sub-title of Standing’s book is “the new dangerous class”.

His conjecture is that the Precariat poses a threat to the established order (through more Utopian, progressive politics or through more reactionary, right-wing agendas). Some disagree with Standing’s thesis. There is not the space to contend with it here. Rather it is introduced – as with the idea of contemporary youth as a new generation – to encourage interest and debate and to give recognition to the profound changes that certainly have affected young people in Europe, not least of which has been the spread of the experience of underemployment across class groups, now uniting graduates and unskilled youth alike in the common condition of insecurity.



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