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The missing half million

How unions can transform themselves to be a movement of young workers
Author
Clare Coatman
Campaigner
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Key findings

Understanding the lives, attitudes and needs of young workers is essential to designing an offer that appeals to them. This research offers important findings to be considered when designing recruitment and organising strategies. A key discovery was that due to barriers we identified, simply informing young workers about the existing trade union offer will be insufficient. There must be a substantive transformation of that offer to make it appealing and to lower the barriers that prevent young workers joining unions.

This report sets out the case for rolling out initiatives like WorkSmart so that the union movement can reach a greater number of young workers and bring them into trade unionism. It proposes a number of ways that unions can also approach their own transformation and innovation programmes. And it underlines the need to communicate differently with young workers.

Download pdf version 

Young people

Background

Despite helping millions of workers ever year, and significant union organising efforts, our membership is aging and is worryingly low in far too many parts of our economy. The future of trade unionism itself is at risk unless we add to our organising toolbox, expand our offer and modernise how unions work. We must consider how we reach those who need the protection of unions the most but are currently the least likely to benefit from membership.

This report

From 2016 to 2019, the TUC undertook a programme of research and innovation to explore how the union movement can better reach young workers. We learned a huge amount about the context of young workers’ lives, their attitudes, the barriers that stand between them and collective organising, their needs, the challenges they face at work, and what they would find appealing in a union offer.

Using this new-found insight, our response was to develop WorkSmart – a career coaching app to engage young workers where they are and bring them on a journey to collectivism at work.

This report presents our process, methodology and findings. It is intended to help the union movement grapple with the hard questions about how we transform ourselves to help meet the needs of a group of workers who far too often are unlikely to be in union membership.

We learned a huge amount about the context of young workers’ lives, their attitudes, the barriers that stand between them and collective organising, their needs, the challenges they face at work, and what they would find appealing in a union offer.

What next?

The final section of this report is a set of recommendations for unions and the TUC. Overall, this project found that unions must transform their offer to young workers if they want to recruit them at scale. Other recommendations cover how unions communicate, the union offer, and union internal working practices. We hope this report will spur unions to develop their own evidence-based recruitment and organising strategies to bring young workers into union membership.

Executive summary

What’s the problem?

Trade union membership among young workers (aged 20–29) is 14.1 per cent, falling by almost half to 7.5 per cent 1in the private sector – where the vast majority of young workers in the UK work. If we raised membership to 23.4 per cent (average UK density for all ages), we would bring 554,000 new members into the movement. They are among the least likely groups for trade union membership, despite having the most to gain. Younger workers have a disproportionately bad time in the world of work as they are at the sharp end of trends in the labour market, such as precarity and lack of opportunities for progression. And, unlike previous generations, current young workers are not turning to unions as they age and settle down.

Young workers’ absence from trade unionism has many interrelating causes. Some causes are not within our control: young workers are employed in a more atomised economy, making collective dynamics at work much harder; their whole lives have been affected by Thatcherism; and their own parents are less likely to be union members.

There is also a structural problem in the economy: young workers disproportionately work in sectors (hospitality, retail, social care) where there are major barriers to organising, including smaller workplaces, high turnover and low staff-contact time. These workplaces are unlikely to have unions organising there – which is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Some causes of the low membership density among young workers are within the control of unions to influence. Traditional ways of reaching and organising workers are no longer succeeding at scale for this group. Isolated campaigns are not bringing a new generation into the movement. And, while many unions are doing excellent work at a small scale to reach younger workers in new ways, this good practice isn’t common practice.

There is a gap in the union offer. In general, we do not communicate that we are relevant to and understand the lives, needs and aspirations of younger workers – which may differ significantly to those of older workers.

And there’s 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 use 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.

The TUC response

In response to this looming crisis in union membership, the TUC Executive Committee decided to undertake a major innovation project. We set out to make sure trade unionism works for young people by designing new models of collective organising that will be effective in the sectors where they work, appeal to them and work within the context of their lives.

We partnered with Good Innovation, a specialist innovation consultancy, to investigate the lives of young workers and explore what new offer we could make. We used a range of innovation approaches – we were audience-led, evidence-led, agile and lean (described under research methodology ).

We learned about:

  • young workers’ attitudes: defined by how important the young worker’s current job is to them, and whether they focus on right now or are more future-oriented. We identified four mindsets: desperate, progress, too comfortable and stop-gap.
     
  • young workers’ needs:
    • to be aware of, and understand, their situation at work
    • to do something to make change happen in their working lives
    • to get together with colleagues in some way
    • to be supported with the pressures in their lives
    • to do well and get ahead.
       
  • the barriers between young workers and collective organising: low expectations of rights and working conditions, a lack of trust between colleagues, a sense of futility in seeking changes at work, and mixed attitudes to unions (where they knew about us at all)
     
  • the issues at work that young workers experience: rude and abusive customers or clients, favouritism from managers, unfairness and pay, shift work, workloads and staffing levels, poor routes to progression
     
  • what young workers want from a union offer

Building on this learning, the TUC developed WorkSmart – a career-coaching app to help young workers identity where they would like to go next in work, develop the skills and knowledge to reach their goals, and gain an understanding of their rights at work. Crucially, WorkSmart is designed to guide young workers towards collective action and ultimately to join a union.

  • 1. Office for National Statistics (2019). Labour Force Survey 

We set out to make sure trade unionism works for young people by designing new models of collective organising that will be effective in the sectors where they work, appeal to them and work within the context of their lives.

What should the movement do next?

Understanding the lives, attitudes and needs of young workers is essential to designing an offer that appeals to them. This research offers important findings to be considered when designing recruitment and organising strategies. A key discovery was that, due to barriers we identified, simply informing young workers about the existing trade union offer will be insufficient: there must be a substantive transformation of that offer to make it appealing and to lower the barriers that prevent young workers joining unions.

This report sets out the case for rolling out initiatives like WorkSmart so that the union movement can reach a greater number of young workers and bring them into trade unionism. It also proposes a number of ways that unions can approach their own transformation and innovation programmes. And it underlines the need to communicate differently with young workers.

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