Is There Heightened Labour Force Precarity in the UK? (5 minute read)

We like to tell stories but the stories we tell are not always accurate. One of the most misleading is that there has been a huge increase in precarious working in the U.K 

What is Labour Force Precarity?

The most obvious form of labour force insecurity is unemployment. This can be relatively easily tracked for an advanced country. It can be explained by the economic cycle and the restructuring of capitalism.  

The precarity argument relates to additional forms of insecurity and non-standard work so that even in good times more people live on the edge. The idea that there has been a large increase in people living on the edge is NOT supported by the data for the UK and the data for other countries mostly points in the same direction. 

To measure precarity you have first to define it in ways that can be measured. Everyone does it differently. The issues relate to job tenure, type of contracts, forms of job turnover, self-employment etc. Then you have to measure trends over time and between different sectors and groups. We then have to ask whether those we might see as ‘precarious’ think of themselves the same way. 

What is the evidence?

I am going to look at several pieces of research which draw on large survey data like the UK Workplace Employment Relations Studies and the UK Labour Force Survey as well as more specific data sets. 

Kevin Doogan in his New Capitalism?: The Transformation of Work (2009) recognised that development produces major structural shifts. Manufacturing has risen and fallen, for example. But he argued that once these were netted out there was little evidence of a real increase in objective workplace insecurity.  

Ten years later Joseph Choonara published a book Insecurity, Precarious Work and Labour Markets: Challenging the Orthodoxy (2019) and papers on job insecurity – real and imagined which followed Doogan’s lead. Looking at later data he argued that ‘the objective insecurity or precarity of employment, as measured by the prevalence of temporary contracts or the actual tenure of employment, … have proved relatively stable in the UK since the 1980s’.

The UK government has also commissioned research to look specifically at these issues. 

A major study of the Scale and Nature of Precarious Work  in the UK was published in April 2020. It was then updated to take account of covid. 

It was able to dig deeper and pick up groups thought to be excluded e.g. ethnic minorities.  

 The study showed that precarious workers tend to be female, younger than average, be more strongly represented amongst ethnic minorities, work for smaller firms and be in poorer jobs.  There is therefore less precarity as we move up the social scale.  

What about sectors?

Aggregate measures can hide things. In the decade covered by the study precarious work in hospitality increased from 16.6% to 19.6%. But in retail it fell from 16.4 to 14.6%. In construction the fluctuations are small and its precarity rate is close to the overall rate.

These variations also point to other things. An industry like hospitality employs lots of young people who may not see their employment there as permanent and perhaps view it positively as a gateway to a better job.

Perhaps it’s not all bad?

How do people in more precarious employment see themselves? The previous study suggested no difference in levels of job satisfaction.  Another survey looked specifically self employment. It does not follow that self-employment = precarity. Past work on self employment has shown its huge diversity. But this is one of the other categories that has grown. Only a small minority said they had been forced into self-employment. 84% said that they thought their lives were better in self employment and a half thought they were better off financially. [Another revealing number is 66% said the main way to describe what they were doing was running a business.] 

People who have believed the precarity story will possibly find these numbers astonishing. But, as the report points, out they are consistent with a 2014 Resolution Foundation [generally thought of as a left-wing research organisation] study

The Fear of Precarity

Choonara argued that the idea that job insecurity is becoming more general is based on:

1. Anecdote

2. A focus on non-standard labour force groups

3. Listening to the ‘voice’ of some rather than others 

According to Choonara  ’subjective insecurity may be more important than objective insecurity’.  He distinguishes three issues:

1. Acute job tenure uncertainty – which reflects the actual chance of job loss and which fluctuates with its real likelihood.

2. Generalised job tenure uncertainty – this is a non specific sense of  ‘muted anxiety’. It is not so closely related to objective conditions

3. Job status insecurity – this is less about fear of losing a job than fear of losing the valued features of a job.  It too does not have to reflect objective reality. 

Choonara emphasises that any sense of the workplace and our own position in it relates more to the second and third issues.

So why do people subjectively think the problem is increasing? For both Doogan and Choonara there is a degree of top down ‘manufactured uncertainty’. Crudely if workers think that they are in a weaker position than they are, this will help contain labour. 

But nether really explain why this misperception continues to be so strong.  

A road that may be interesting to go down is to explore the extent to which this misperception is rooted in a generalised angst in parts of the white collar professionals force (including academics) who are uncertain of the extent to which they are valued and who then project this angst onto everyone else.

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