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We set out to find out how workers are faring both in terms of their experiences of economic security and the quality of work in the UK. In the first report for the RSA’s new Future Work Centre, we reveal seven portraits of modern workers, reflecting on what it’s like to navigate today’s labour market.

The rise in zero-hour contracts and gig work has been followed by fears that the labour market is fragmenting into low paying, poorly protected jobs. The more flexible the workforce becomes, the more insecure workers appear to be, raising questions about whether workers’ interests are still being safeguarded under employment law.

In response to this unease, the government appointed Matthew Taylor to carry out a review of modern working practices. This was published in July 2017 and sought to achieve more than a reform of labour law for atypical workers. Its ultimate conclusion – that, as a society, we should strive for all work to be ‘good work’ – is relevant to workers across the labour market, no matter what the job. Our new report further explores the state of good work in the UK.

What we’ve found is that contract type and employment status are not adequate measures of whether someone is economically secure or in poor quality work. For example, while some people in the gig economy may struggle to make ends meet as they go from job to job, others are satisfied with the hours they work and their degree of autonomy. Moreover, there are many workers in seemingly secure jobs who are just managing to scrape by but are overlooked in debates about how to improve economic security when contract types or employment status are used as proxies for precarity. From retail workers to warehouse operatives, and from care workers to cleaners, we are beginning to uncover the hidden millions who are chronically broke year in, year out. 

 

Our aggregate findings reveal that many workers have critical concerns.

When it comes to workers' financial circumstances:

  • 26 percent of workers do not feel like they earn enough to maintain a decent standard of living.
  • 34 percent, or a third of the workforce, would consider themselves to be ‘just about managing’.
  • 43 percent do not have anyone in their household who they could depend on to support them financially in the event of hardship.

With regard to the quality of work, many report poor experiences.

  • 28 percent of workers feel less secure in their jobs than they did five years ago
  • 32 percent work excessive hours, and 47 percent often find work stressful.
  • Only 40 percent of workers feel that they have good opportunities for career progression.

Our seven portraits reflect a more nuanced analysis of these issues, helping us to better understand who is having a good experience and who needs more support. 

 

Overall, there are five key implications from our segmentation.

1. Conventional jobs are no panacea.

We identify more than a dozen indicators of economic security and quality work. So although, contract type and employment status are certainly factors in workers’ experiences, they are not proxies for security or precarity. When we confuse them for such we overlook the many workers in seemingly secure jobs who are struggling to get by.

2. Insecurity is both a personal and systemic phenomenon.

People’s feelings, perceptions and lived experiences matter alongside objective measures of economic security. This means that it’s possible for two people to be in the same kind of job and have completely different perspectives about economic security and quality of work. However, as personal as insecurity is, it is also influenced by systemic factors. For example, changes to welfare rules, public service provision, and educational opportunities can relieve or heighten insecurity. Wider forces such as globalisation and new technology may reassure some and aggravate others.

3. Shared challenges across segments betray common and pervasive problems in and beyond the labour market.

Although we may have seven distinct portraits of modern workers, there are shared challenges between them, driven in part by the systemic forces mentioned above. This is evident by the sheer number of workers who are having trouble making ends meet; can’t turn to others in the household for support; feel stressed out by their jobs; haven’t progressed in the last five years, and aren’t optimistic about future prospects. This reinforces the point that economic insecurity is more than just a labour market challenge and will likely need policies that extend beyond labour markets into areas such as asset ownership and new institutions for sharing risk and reward.

4. Different places and different sectors can have a significant bearing on experiences of work.

Places and sectors can shape people’s experiences of economic security and work, and the seven segments are distributed differently in different places and sectors. The implication is that it is worth pursuing place-based and sectoral approaches to raising the security and quality of work, which reflect the support needs of specific segments.

5. More flexibility shouldn’t mean less security.

Flexibility benefits both businesses and workers. However, in exchange for offering workers greater flexibility, businesses shouldn’t relinquish their sense of responsibility for ensuring that these workers are also able to maintain a decent living. Our own segmentation showed that some workers have both flexibility and security in work. To achieve this may mean that the obligations of businesses to workers will change, but we do not believe that overall they should be lessened.

No single reform will improve the economic security and employment experiences of British workers. We do not purport to be offering all of the necessary solutions and our suggested interventions, ranging from local enforcement of the minimum wage to personalised training accounts, are a starting point.

 

Download the report: Thriving, striving, or just about surviving? Seven portraits of economic security and modern work in the UK (PDF, 3MB)

Read online about the 7 portraits of modern work in the UK (on Medium)

Explore the 7 portraits through an online interactive tool


The Future of Work

The RSA believes that a better world of work is possible. The RSA Future Work Centre aims to get behind the headlines, unpick the nuance of debates, and canvass the views of those who can change the system. Find out how you can support us!

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The Future of Work

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