Surveys continue to highlight a wide range of progressive views held by young people (among both Generation Z and Millennials). Polling returns also show high levels of support for Labour (and particularly the Green Party) even if this isn’t reflected in party membership. Yet barely 1 in 10 workers under 24 belong to a trade union, way below the figure for the workforce as a whole. Young people may be at the forefront of campaigns against climate change for example, but the same cannot be said about labour movement struggles.
Union membership is ‘greying’, with ONS data reporting 41.1% aged 50 or older. Employees who have longer lengths of service with an employer are also more likely to be a member of a trade union. 24.9% of employees who were trade union members in 2021 had between 10 and 20 years of service.
Yet there’s no evidence of young people being hostile to trade unions, at best it can be seen as a lack of awareness, or maybe reflect a feeling that unions are associated with previous generations (‘my dad used to be in one of those’). While the disappointing nature of union recruitment strategies (with one or two notable exceptions) should not be under estimated, (many young workers say they’ve ‘never been asked’) young people’s lack of involvement is also a reflection of more general employment trends and working practices, in particular, the decline of long term contractual ‘core employment’, counteracted by the growth of a ‘precariat’ and ‘gig’ work, in which as new entrants to the labour market, young people will be increasingly over represented. According to some academic research, rather than leading to anger and opposition, young workers now consider this type of employment a ‘new normal’ where future job security depends on individual negotiation of difficult economic conditions, rather than traditional ‘collective’ industrial action.
Longer term changes have meant that according to ONS, union membership as a proportion of employees has fallen from 32.4% in 1995 to 23.1% in 2021. In particular, trade union membership in the private sector has declined by 835,000 since 1995, a fall of 24.6%. Even if membership in the public sector has increased by 166,000, an increase of 4.5% – it has now fallen as a proportion of the workforce.
It might seem ironic, considering what’s been said, that more and more union members are graduates. This is partly due to high rates amongst teachers and lecturers, increasingly dependent on unions to defend pay and conditions of service. But it’s also a result of the ‘graduatisation’ of what were previously considered ‘middle-jobs’ and where thousands of younger workers are ‘overqualified and underemployed’.
In addition to being in precariat work, growing numbers of young people have shadowy relationships with the labour market, maybe getting by in various types of self-employment where trade union membership will appear irrelevant. Significant numbers of 18–24 year-olds also remain outside of the labour market. As many as 1 in 8 are officially counted as NEET. In addition, approaching 2 million 18–24-year-olds are in full-time education, with nearly half of these reported as ‘economically inactive’.
Yet the recent upturn in industrial struggles will not go unnoticed by young people particularly if, as some of the more astute already do, union bosses make clear links between the sectoral interests of their members and wide issues of inequality.