Young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work – Evidence Review

This evidence review presents findings on young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work. These work conditions included where young people had for example zero hours contracts, low wages, lack of progression opportunities, dissatisfaction with current employment, or varying hours.

Executive Summary 


Progressive Partnership was commissioned by the Scottish Government to undertake research on the experiences of young people in Scotland of precarious and flexible work. 

A desk study phase was carried out as part of the early stages of research, to identify and understand the existing knowledge on this topic, both within Scotland and further afield across the rest of the UK and other relevant areas.

Approach to the review

The Scottish Government set out nine research questions (RQ) to be addressed by the research project overall, of which 5 have been addressed by the initial evidence review and are shown in table 1.1 below (see table 2.1 for the full RQ list):

Table 1.1: Research questions addressed in the review

Research Questions:

  • RQ1 - What are the range of potentially precarious or flexible working conditions experienced by young people in Scotland?
  • RQ3 - What are the circumstances whereby young people find themselves in precarious work / contractual conditions (e.g. ZHCs)? 
  • RQ4 - What are the experiences (e.g. positive, negative, mixed) of young people in a range of potentially precarious or flexible working conditions (e.g. ZHCs, low wages, lack of progression opportunities)? 
  • RQ5 - Are there any particular disadvantages, challenges, advantages, opportunities etc. of different potentially precarious or flexible working conditions?
  • RQ8 - What are the barriers that prevent young people who want to change jobs from doing so? 

A fluid search strategy was adopted, whereby initial key search terms were identified based on information from the brief and the project team’s existing knowledge. The project team carried out searches across a range of sources using those terms. 

On completion of the search a final list of 40 documents was identified. The abstract, executive summary, conclusions or initial information from documents and articles were reviewed and prioritised, based on the extent to which the evidence addressed the research questions. Other exclusion criteria were also considered (e.g. studies were excluded if they were not reported in English, published before 2010, or exclusively covered countries outside the EEA). A small number of studies that fell within the exclusion criteria have been included due to their relevance on a topic where sources were limited. On completion of the prioritisation exercise 27 documents were reviewed in more detail.

Summary of key findings from the review

What constitutes precarious working conditions?

This chapter addresses the types of employment relationships identified in literature as potentially precarious. Key findings include:

  • There was no universally accepted definition of what constitutes precarious working. Different sources discussed precariousness in relation to a range of types of contract and/or organisational/labour models.
  • Indicators for potential precariousness were identified in some of the evidence, suggesting the risk of precariousness may be present in any employment type. These included low pay and in-work poverty, as well as a range of other factors such as an unequal power balance between employee and employer, employment insecurity, limited rights and protections, and limited opportunities for career development and training.
  • The evidence reviewed describe a number of specific types of employment experienced by people across the UK and Scotland as at risk for precariousness. Amongst these were zero hours contracts, marginal part-time work, ‘bogus’ self-employment, fixed term contracts, agency work and work in the gig or platform economies.
  • ‘Flexibility’ was noted as a characteristic of many of the employment types highlighted as potentially precarious. Flexibility is considered a strength of the UK labour market by the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices (2017), however the literature reviewed also commented on the potential for flexible work to become precarious if, rather than being a desired characteristic of employment for the worker and one they actively choose, it is accepted because more secure forms of employment are not available.

What are the circumstances whereby young people find themselves in precarious work/contractual conditions?

This chapter reviews research which explores motivations for working in potentially precarious employment. Key findings include:

  • Limited evidence could be found with respect to reasons people choose, or find themselves in, the types of employment highlighted as potentially precarious; with much of the literature instead focused on experiences of precarious employment. The chapter looks at a specific piece of research, undertaken by the Chartered Institue of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which explored motivations among UK workers in the gig economy.
  • The CIPD research identified a number of reasons for working in the gig economy, the most cited (given by approximately a third of respondents to the CIPD’s survey) being that gig economy work provided a supplementary income, followed by it being a short term solution to achieve an end goal. A minority also reported working in the gig economy because they could not find ‘traditional’ (i.e. more secure) employment.

What are the experiences of young people in precarious working conditions?

This chapter brings together evidence on the experiences of those in work considered precarious, and the impact on workers. Key findings include:

  • Evidence relating specifically to the experiences of young people in Scotland was limited, however the review includes research which identified priorities for ‘decent work’ for 16-24 year olds in low paid employment in Scotland as being a decent hourly rate of pay, paid leave, lack of discrimination, job security and a supportive manager.
  • More widely the review found evidence from a number of sources indicating that working conditions associated with precarious employment could impact negatively on workers’ lives. Links were noted between precarious working conditions and poor health outcomes (in relation to both chronic stress and other health conditions, as well as poor occupational health and safety outcomes).
  • The evidence reviewed also found precarious working associated with financial constraints, and in some cases this resulted in pressure to accept unsuitable work, for example to avoid benefits sanctions or being ‘starved’ of future work by employers.
  • Several sources noted recent collective industrial action and other developments in worker representation for those in potentially precarious work. However this is described in the context of an ‘erosion’ of workers’ rights, considered to be linked to the increasing levels of flexible or precarious employment in the UK labour market.
  • The literature identified certain employment sectors in the UK at higher risk of precariousness. These included sales, retail, and customer services; logistics/parcel delivery; process, plant and machine operation; hospitality; caring; and higher education.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of precarious working conditions?

  • This chapter looked at evidence on elements of work considered potentially precarious that could be advantageous to workers, and those that could be a disadvantage. Key findings included:
  • In examining evidence it was apparent that aspects of work described as precarious are considered an advantage to some but a disadvantage for others (for example flexibility was cited as an advantage to those balancing work with other priorities, but flexible hours were also associated with pressure to fulfil short notice working requests for some workers).
  • Flexibility was the most frequently cited advantage of potentially precarious employment, with flexible working conditions described as providing opportunities to people with different needs and priorities and at different stages in life. Autonomy and independence were also identified as benefits of some types of potentially precarious work – for example work in the gig economy – as well as this work providing a stepping stone to other employment or opportunities.
  • Examples of the disadvantages of precarious working were more prevalent throughout literature. Evidence reviewed strongly suggests that most employment types considered potentially precarious or flexible are associated with low rates of pay and/or pay insecurity. Insecurity of working patterns was also highlighted as problematic for many workers. This included having little choice over contracts or hours and sometimes unpredictability of working hours. Lack of training or opportunities for progression were also noted as a characteristic of some forms of potentially precarious work.
  • The decision to choose flexible or potentially precarious work is described in some evidence as a tradeoff between its advantages and disadvantages, for example workers trading job security for the flexibility they want; or accepting certain conditions to ensure they have some form of income; however there is evidence to suggest that these tradeoffs contribute to dissatisfaction with working conditions.

What barriers to changing jobs do young people face if in precarious / flexible employment?

This chapter reviews evidence on leaving precarious/flexible employment. Key findings include:

  • Dissatisfaction with elements of precarious/flexible employment amongst workers is consistently highlighted across evidence reviewed, however information on the barriers to leaving these employment types was limited.
  • Some studies did however note a lack of suitable opportunities as a barrier, including limited opportunities that would accommodate workers’ need for a flexible working pattern.
  • Accordingly, recommendations made in evidence were most likely to be around improving working conditions rather than focusing on removing barriers to accessing other forms of employment; for example recommendations were made around continued work to encourage organisations to become Living Wage employers, or increased regulation of potentially precarious employment.



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