Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
12 Sep 2016

Unions exist to represent everyone at work, yet very few young workers are union members. 

The TUC looked at the group of young workers who would most benefit from being in a union. We have called them Britain’s young core workers, because they are the backbone of our economy now and for decades into the future. 

Britain’s young core workers

  • Aged 21–30
  • Predominantly working in the private sector
  • Working full- or part-time
  • Not in full-time education
  • Earning low to average wages.

Who are Britain’s young core workers?

Britain’s young core workers are a group of 3.5 million women and men, all working either fullor part-time and earning less than £10.26 per hour. Nine per cent are BAME, and nearly 10 per cent have a disability. They live in all regions and nations of the UK, and are especially likely to live in the north-east. They are more likely to live in more deprived areas. Nearly a third of Britain’s young core workers are parents.

Three in 10 of Britain’s young core workers have qualifications at A-level or equivalent, which includes apprenticeships and vocational further education. Only one in four have a degree, compared with one-third of all employees and 40 per cent of young employees as a whole.

Britain’s young core workers and work

Nearly 87 per cent of Britain’s young core workers work in the private sector. Nearly half of Britain’s young core workers work in retail, health and social care and accommodation and food services. 

Britain’s young core workers are less likely to be managers or supervisors than all young employees. And they are less likely than other young employees to have access to training.

Britain’s young core workers are even less likely to be union members than all young employees: only 9.4 per cent are union members, including just 6.3 per cent in the private sector, where the vast majority work.

Key workplace challenges for Britain’s young core workers

  • Low pay
  • Low-skilled, low-quality jobs
  • Lack of training opportunities
  • Over-qualification for the jobs available
  • Weak opportunities for progression and promotion
  • Underemployment
  • Precarious working conditions
  • Bullying and harassment, including sexual harassment
  • Pressure on working parents
  • No voice in the workplace

The values of Britain’s young core workers

Overall, Britain’s young core workers are more optimistic, tend to prioritise individualistic behaviour and are more competitive. They are status-driven and want to get on – and are less loyal to causes or traditions. They reject the idea of being content with one’s lot and are not interested in playing it safe.

Conclusions and recommendations for action by unions

Britain’s young core workers are often at the sharp end of labour market change. They have a worse experience of work than their parents did – even if they themselves may not identify that.

Trade unionism could offer Britain’s young core workers significant benefits. But if unions do not speak their language and appeal to their values, unions will not be heard. The union movement needs to start with what Britain’s young core workers need, rather than what unions want to give them. Offers centering on helping Britain’s young core workers progress at work, be treated fairly while pregnant and win better pay and guaranteed hours should be explored.

Trade unions should decide how they get into those workplaces where Britain’s young core workers are, with an offer designed to appeal to them. The offer must feel compelling and value for money – and it must learn from the seamless membership experience of digital-first businesses. Unions have to radically improve their comms and membership engagement – both digital expertise and digital-to-offline organising. And the union movement as a whole should consider a common gateway period to smooth the first experience of unions for those in unorganised workplaces.