Our movement needs to step up for young workers

Published date
Our movement needs to grow if we are to continue change the world of work.

To do that, we need to find ways to increase the numbers of young members in our trade unions and to find the next generation of union reps and activists to stand for members in the workplace. Without them, we won’t be able to make the changes we want.

There are, however, challenges ahead. Less than 1 in 20 union members are aged between 16 and 24 and over half of union reps are 50 and over, which means over the next 10 to 15 years we will lose over half our reps. We urgently need to address this demographic cliff-edge.

The first challenge is how to organise the next generation of workers, particularly those at the start of their working lives. That first challenge is inextricably linked to the second: how to increase levels of unionisation in the private sector. Membership amongst young workers isn’t low because they don’t like unions, but because most of them work in the private sector – and specifically parts of that sector which are virtually union-free zones.

Another reason for lower membership amongst young workers is that through the generations we’ve seen a shift in how people see the world. Younger people are more likely to think first about individual approaches rather than collective ones. This doesn’t mean young people are in any way selfish, it simply means their workplace focus is different.

This doesn’t mean trade unionism doesn’t have anything to offer young workers. But it does mean that we need to rethink how we communicate and what we emphasise. For example, instead of saying “let’s stand in solidarity together” we might say “unions are your best way to get ahead at work.”

There is also a gap in how we engage with young workers. In general, unions don’t offer the kind of digital experiences young people are used to. For a generation who uses Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime, it’s jarring to be handed a piece of paper to fill in, or to have to call an office when you move home to let them know your new address.

In the private sector, companies that are reluctant to innovate are going out of business. Trade unionism is too important to allow anything comparable to happen.

And finally, we’ve got an image problem. Younger workers don’t think unions are for them – believing that we exist for older people, for the public sector not the private sector, and for those in careers rather than jobs. But we know different. Unions are for everyone. They’ve had a tremendously positive impact on millions of people’s lives and can continue to do so but we need to be having those conversations with the young workers in our workplaces.

The message of our new young workers toolkit is a simple one, even if the challenge is not: without young workers, all the hard-fought wins in the proud history of our movement could be lost. Without young workers stepping in behind us as reps and members, our colleagues risk not having the voice they had before. 

But young workers are more than tomorrow’s members, they are part of today’s fight, and if we as a movement want to build and grow, we need to be engaging with them with a compelling offer in a language they can relate to. This toolkit is aimed to help you do just that.