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Stuck at the start

Young workers' impressions of pay and progression
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Key findings

Young people are getting a raw deal at work. Low pay, few opportunities to progress and a feeling that nothing will change often dominate their working lives. But this is through no fault of their own. Many of the barriers facing young workers are structural and outside of their control.This report identifies five issues that young workers face in getting ahead at work and makes recommendations to help.

Issue 1: young workers are disproportionately affected by wage stagnation.

  • 23 per cent of the 21 to 30-year-olds we spoke to told us that they had struggled to earn enough to afford their basic living costs in the last five years
  • Pay gaps between younger and older workers have widened
  • Over half (55 per cent) of young workers said they would have to use a credit card, an overdraft or borrow from family and friends if they were landed with an unexpected bill of £500.
  • Six per cent of young workers who are parents would resort to using a payday lender if they were landed with an unexpected bill of £500 – compared with two per cent of all young workers.
  • 20 per cent of young workers – and 27 per cent of young workers who are parents - skipped a main meal in the last year because of a shortage of money.
  • Nearly a quarter of young workers have pawned or sold something, and 22 per cent went without heating when it was cold in the last year.
  • 41 per cent of young workers have had to ask their family or friends for financial help. Over one-fifth have put off starting a family and over a quarter have put off changing careers due to money worries.

Issue 2: young workers are concentrated in low-paying jobs

  • Only 31 per cent of young workers feel that their current job makes the most of their skills, experiences and qualifications – and this drops to only 16 per cent for part-time workers.

Issue 3: young workers do not have access to the skills development to get on at work

  • 17 per cent of young workers have not been offered any training in their current workplace. This rises to over one quarter (26 per cent) for young workers earning less than £20,000 a year.
  • 37 per cent for young workers on zero-hour contracts, and 34 per cent for those on part-time contracts, have not been offered any training opportunities in their current workplace.

Issue 4: young workers are especially vulnerable to insecure work

  • In the last five years, 28 per cent of young workers have had shifts offered to them with less than 24 hours’ notice. This increases to 42 per cent of young workers earning less than £20,000 a year. And 14 per cent of young workers have had work cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice – increasing to 22 per cent of young workers earning less than £20,000 a year.
  • Over a fifth (21 per cent) of young workers have worked on a zero-hours contract in the last five years. This rises to nearly one third (32 per cent) of young workers earning less than £20,000 a year.

Issue 5: young workers have no voice at work

  • Fewer than two thirds (62 per cent) of young people feel positive about their career prospects. This falls to under half (47 per cent) of young workers earning less than £20,000 a year.

Recommendations: how to make life at work better for young workers

The government must:

  • Increase the national minimum wage to £10 per hour as quickly as possible, and include 21- to 24-year-olds in the over 25s rate. Alongside this, they should also increase the national minimum wage for under 21-year olds quickly, and raise the national minimum wage for apprentices. And government should prioritise enforcing the national minimum wage .
  • Develop a strategy to improve wages, productivity, skills development and conditions in low-paid industries, by setting up modern wages councils that can require employers to act.
  • Give all workers – including young workers – the right to time off for training. Make sure all apprenticeships include higher quality learning components, and increase the participation of underrepresented groups in those apprenticeships that lead to secure, decently-paid careers.
  • Introduce a package of rights to significantly reduce insecure work. The government should close the loophole that means agency staff can be paid less than employees doing the same job, and ban the regular use of zero-hours contracts.
  • Introduce the right to a premium for working any non-contracted hours and compensation when shifts are cancelled at short notice – for all workers. And all workers should have access to the same rights from day one in their jobs, including family friendly rights.
  • Raise the level of spending on public services per capita so it is in line with other European countries – enabling increased funding for low-paid sectors such as social care.
  • Use public commissioning and procurement powers to secure better jobs which pay the real Living Wage, are part of relevant national collective agreements and have job security. An example of how to do this is the Unison ethical care charter.

Employers must:

  • Invest in high quality in-work training and skills development. Training and promotion opportunities should be designed so that they are transferable to other employers, and are a real option for part-time workers.
  • Create genuinely flexible, well-paid, part-time work at all levels of an organisation, particularly for supervisory and managerial roles, so that parents do not have to give up spending quality time with family just to make ends meet.


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