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The missing half million

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

Throughout the research phase, we analysed everything we heard and identified a set of core insights that formed the basis of our thinking going forward. The insights are grouped into mindsets, barriers to collective organising, needs and issues for this group.


We found four distinct mindsets or psychological attitudes that different young core workers displayed. The mindsets are defined by how important the young core worker’s current job is to them, and whether they focus on right now or are more future-oriented. 

Any individual might exhibit traits from one or more mindset and will move between them as their life circumstances change. These don’t work as rigid definitions or ways to categorise people – instead this is a useful guide to what might be important to different types of young worker.

We built a persona for each mindset: desperate Dan, progress Paula, too comfortable Tamara and stop-gap Steve.

Persona grid: Desperate Dan, Progress Paula, Too Comfortable Tamara and Stopgap Steve.
Persona grid

1. Desperate mindset – ’Dan’

Workers in the ‘desperate’ group are in the most precarious jobs and under the most pressure. Their job is crucial for survival, making it feel too risky to speak out about poor treatment. The future feels uncertain and they worry about how they’ll cope. They struggle to make ends meet and experience high levels of insecurity.


Dan might say:

“The thought of losing my job makes me anxious about speaking out. I’m lucky to have a job – there’s plenty of people who don’t and are ready to take your place.”

“Who would listen to someone like me if I did raise something?”

“My life is completely out of my control. I have no stability in life, no security. I’m only 26 – is this it? Is it going to get worse?”


2. Progress mindset – ’Paula’

Workers in the ‘progress’ group are focused on getting ahead  in the sector they are already working in (most typically care). They are committed and conscientious but often don’t get recognised as such in the workplace because of their age.

Paula might say:

“I’m really passionate about my work. I love helping people.”

“I can see how things could be run better at work, but they just don’t listen to me.”

“I do just as much work as my boss but get paid way less.”


3. Too comfortable mindset – ‘Tamara’

Young workers in the ‘too comfortable’ group see their job as a means to an end that fits around other commitments in their lives. They put up with a degree of bad treatment or conditions because there is also a degree of convenience, such as a job that fits with childcare. It doesn’t feel worth it to rock the boat.

Tamara might say:

“I feel lucky I can swap shifts, so it seems ungrateful to complain about my pay or holiday pay.”

“Unless it gets really bad it’s easier to stay and put up with things. It’s just convenient.”

“I don’t really think or speak about work when I’m not there.”


4. Stopgap mindset - ‘Steve’

Workers like Steve don’t feel committed to the work they’re currently doing. It was always intended to be a stepping stone to something different, though some have got stuck where they are. Some have a clear idea of which sector they’d like to move to whereas others are unsure.


Steve might say:

“This is just a short-term job, it’s not my career.”

“There’s no point in trying to change things. I won’t be here much longer.”

“I want to work on things that will benefit me in my future career.”

Barriers to collective organising

In developing an offer, we needed to understand why young core workers weren’t getting involved in collective organising to change things at work. Understanding the barriers means we could develop mechanisms to lower or mitigate them.

We identified four key barriers that stand between young core workers and collective organising:

1.    Low expectations

Young core workers entered the workforce during a time of high insecurity and widespread poor working practices. They don’t identify as having problems at work – they think this is just what work is like. If anything, they consider themselves fortunate to have a job. Young core workers say things like: “I have to be at work half an hour unpaid every day for briefings and debriefings, but overall I’m treated fairly.”

2.    A lack of trust between colleagues 

There are very low levels of trust between colleagues in precarious work. Employees are in competition with each other to gain approval from managers, which means they get more convenient shifts and get their leave agreed. Young core workers say things like: “I could never talk to a colleague about something wrong at work - they’d be straight behind my back to the boss and then I’d be in trouble.”

3.    A sense of futility

When young core workers have tried to change things at work in the past, they’ve done so alone, and were unsuccessful. Young core workers say things like: “Why would I put my neck on the line to try and change something if it’s never going to get better anyway?”

4.    Mixed attitudes to unions

This research confirmed our fears that young core workers don’t know much about unions. The vast majority hadn’t heard the words ‘trade union’ and couldn’t provide a definition. 

Where there was some knowledge, it came from older family members who are union members or from reports of strikes in the media. For these young core workers, there was a sense that unions are for ‘other people’ – older workers not younger workers, the public sector not the private sector, and those established in their careers not just doing jobs. There are also associations that unions are ineffective, irrelevant, bureaucratic, hierarchical and unrepresentative of wider society, as they are seen as older, white and male.

When young core workers with no prior knowledge were given a definition of a trade union, they liked the concept and said they wished there were unions they were eligible to join. Some also had concerns that joining a union could mark you out as a troublemaker, could mean you were penalised informally at work or would find it harder to get your next job.

These barriers meant we needed to take young core workers on a psychological journey through different mindsets towards collective organising:

  • “I’m not sure I’m being treated/paid fairly.”
  • “Something isn’t right.”
  • “It’s not just me.”
  • “I’m confident things can change.”
  • “I want to do something/take action.”

Mixed attitudes in unions

Starting with the problem (young core workers not joining unions) rather than jumping to a solution allowed us to test our assumptions. Through this in-depth research, we understood that most of the barriers young core workers face to joining unions are not actually to do with unions – but they are starting very far from us (further away than we had realised). 

Understanding this led us to develop a pre-engagement journey, before we even introduced the idea of a union: lowering the barriers by raising expectations of the workplace, building trust among the group and giving a sense of hope that things can change, before making an approach about unions.


Tip: Think about these barriers in relation to your work as a rep or officer. What implications do they have about how you talk to younger workers?


Understanding the needs of a group is a powerful way of shaping an offer for them. By meeting their needs, we become relevant and appealing. However, we have to begin with their own understanding of what they need. And our research told us that, given their low expectations from the workplace, many young core workers didn’t know that they needed support with poor working practices – so an immediate union offer didn’t feel relevant. 

Young core workers did identify the following needs: 

  • to be aware of, and understand, their situation so that they want to make change happen
    • “I want to know what is right and wrong and whether I’m being treated normally or not.”
    • “I want to feel like I’m being treated fairly in comparison to others."
  • to do something to make change happen
    • “I need to feel more confident in myself and my issue if I’m going to do anything about it.”
    • “I want to feel safe and not be worried if I speak out.”
    • “I want to feel that things could change before I try to address an issue.”
  • to get together with colleagues in some way 
    • “I need to trust my colleagues before I share my thoughts with them.”
    • “I wish it were easier to get together with others.”
    • “I want to feel like I’m not doing something wrong and won’t be treated differently if I share my thoughts and opinions with colleagues.”
    • “I need to feel there’s a benefit to getting together and sharing thoughts and opinions with colleagues.”
  • to be further motivated to engage if issues in their work and lives are addressed
    • “I want to feel more in control of my life.”
    • “I want ways of dealing with the stresses and pressures of work.”
    • “I want to be treated with respect by my employer.”
  • to do well and get ahead
    • "I want to feel like I’m investing in my future in the sector.”
    • “I want to feel like I’m investing in my own personal development.”


Because of young core workers’ low expectations of the workplace, it was often challenging to get respondents to identify issues at work. They thought their experience of work, which we as trade unionists could often see was exploitative or even illegal, was just how work is. In general, issues are felt locally, most commonly with managers. There is a lack of understanding of how decisions are made, for example a fatalism about pay. The most common feeling about pay was that ‘it is what it is’, that there is no person who can decide to change it so it’s not worth trying to

Through conversation and ranking exercises, we were able to dig down into what issues are strongly felt. The top issues we heard were about:

Rude and abusive customers or clients 
Young core workers are on the frontline of service sectors and routinely exposed to unacceptable behaviour from customers or clients. Young core workers don’t blame companies for failing to protect them, but do feel hurt when the company then (typically) sides with the customer.

Favouritism from managers
We often heard “I’m fine because I’m mates with my manager”: or, conversely, “the manager doesn’t like me”. Young core workers’ managers’ attitudes towards them impact on penalties around lateness, shift allocation, leave approval, flexible working and general atmosphere.

Unfairness and pay
A sense of unfairness as a problem came up often. For example, young core workers feel more aggrieved at being paid less than someone else doing the same work or at having worked somewhere for years without a pay rise than they are at their objectively low pay overall. There were also concerns around lack of sick pay. Unfairness is a useful communications frame for this group.

I’m upset that I’ve been there for 11 years and am still on minimum wage.

Shift work
Short notice of shifts leads to difficulty planning personal or family life, which can lead to mental health problems. One respondent lost touch with her friends because she was never free at the same time as them. And it leads to physical health problems, with another respondent unable to make a dentist appointment because she could never be sure of keeping it. Those with childcare commitments are most likely to have a problem with lack of flexibility.

Again, there is a sense of unfairness that young core workers’ flexibility (e.g. to come in at short notice) isn’t matched by the employer (e.g. to swap a shift).

You get a call one hour before to cover a shift.

Workloads and staffing levels
Young core workers frequently cited as issues unrealistically high workloads, having to stay late unpaid to get everything done, and chronic understaffing.

Poor routes to progression
We heard from many young core workers that they want to do well and get ahead at work. They feel that if they’re at school, college or university they can access a careers service. If they’re unemployed they can access the job centre. But when they’re in employment they feel completely unsupported – and that employers are unable or unwilling to offer training and progression. 

Young core workers’ managers are more likely to treat them as though they’re not serious about work than identify development opportunities or release them for training. There is also confusion about routes to progression.

I’m on the technical team but received no training. You ask your colleagues questions and pick it up.

We also don’t get enough training… it can be frustrating for those of us that want to develop our skills.

Tip: The issues that are important to younger workers are the issues that are important to all workers: pay, precarity, voice at work. But there can be a different emphasis. Do you understand what the young people in your workplace or sector particularly care about? Are those issues reflected in bargaining agendas and communications?

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