Manchester Metropolitan University

Young people and work: is traditional trade unionism a thing of the past?

Realities of modern work means attitudes to industrial relations have changed, new research says

Young workers are often doubtful about the impact of industrial relations

Young workers are often doubtful about the impact of industrial relations

Young people are often doubtful about the impact of industrial relations due to an acceptance of the insecure nature of employment and a perceived irrelevance of traditional trade union activity, according to research from Manchester Metropolitan University.

A shift in nature of employment in the UK following the 2008 economic crash means that younger people are more focused on their own career rather than challenging difficult employment conditions through collective action, researchers say.

Young people largely expect these conditions to continue and are in two minds about the support offered by trade unions and traditional approaches to industrial relations, according to findings published in the Journal of Economic and Industrial Democracy.

The study, which used a series of focus groups and online discussions to understand the views of 49 young people aged 18 to 25, found that awareness of precarity in the labour market and attitudes towards industrial relations are linked to young people’s experiences of the economic crisis and the subsequent turbulence this has caused.

Dr Sean McDaniel, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “The 2008 crisis accelerated a trend towards precarious labour market conditions which have disproportionately affected young people.

“While there is anger and frustration at the situation, young people appear to be more focused on negotiating these difficulties in their own career rather than challenging them through collective action.

“Our research suggests that young people are more interested in what trade unions could do for them, rather than the traditional emphasis on solidarity through trade unionism. While there is no aversion to solidarity per se, there is a perceived lack of relevance of traditional trade union activity in modern employment.”

Precarity is becoming accepted as the norm in young people’s experiences of the labour market and this poses real problems for trade union organisations.

Researchers at Manchester Metropolitan state that traditional approaches to industrial relations still have a role to play but are currently at odds with the attitudes many young people display to their employment situation.

McDaniel added: “It is not our intention to suggest that traditional approaches to industrial relations are in terminal decline. It is reasonable to assume that today’s young workers will become less accepting of precarious employment as they age and this is likely to reshape their attitudes towards trade unions.

“However, precarity is becoming accepted as the norm in young people’s experiences of the labour market and this poses real problems for trade union organisations.”

Researchers conducted four focus groups in Manchester, London and Grantham with graduates and non-graduates represented among the 32 participants. Additionally, 17 participants took part in an online exercise to offer their thoughts on industrial relations among young people.

The full research article, “Post-crisis precarity: Understanding attitudes to work and industrial relations among young people in the UK”, is available in the Journal of Economic and Industrial Democracy.

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