Publication - Research and analysis

Young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work – Main Report

The research report 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.

Young people's experiences of precarious and flexible work – Main Report
Approach

Approach

Qualitative research

Ten qualitative focus groups were conducted across various locations in Scotland with 16-24 year olds currently employed or who had held a job in the last 6 months. As this stage involved very in-depth discussions around their employment and experiences there was a need to ensure that they had recent employment experience to comment on, whilst also allowing those on temporary, ad hoc contracts to be included in the sample. These were conducted between 22nd August and 3rd September 2019. The focus groups took place in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Peterhead and Galashiels. The overall sample size was 66.

Quantitative research

In total, 1,043 quantitative survey interviews were conducted with 16-24 year olds who were currently employed or had been employed in Scotland within the last 24 months. The time period used (24 months) during the quantitative study was longer than the qualitative stage as, in addition to ensuring the sample included seasonal and ad-hoc workers, the survey was predominantly closed questions, therefore there was less need for them to recall in-depth information about their most recent employment type. The fieldwork took place between 23rd September and the 16th October 2019. The survey was conducted face-to-face, in-street by Progressive's interviewers using Computer-Aided Personal Interviewing (CAPI). The final sample was representative of employed 16-24 year olds across Scotland in terms of age and gender, and reflected 16-24 year olds across Scotland in general by location and ethnicity.

Defining precarious and flexible work

To address the RQs it was important to distinguish the research participants that were potentially in precarious or flexible work from those that were not. The evidence review reported that there is no universally accepted definition of precarious or flexible working with many reports defining or identifying this audience in slightly different ways.

Although the Scottish Government's ongoing policy position is to firmly oppose inappropriate use of ZHCs and other types of work that offer workers minimum job or financial security, this research aimed, as far as possible, to take a 'value-free' position (or at least a pluralistic one) by exploring the range of experiences of young people in these working conditions.

The starting position was that precarious and flexible working conditions could be seen as having negative connotations (e.g. low wages, lacking in progression opportunities) and / or positive connotations (e.g. variable hours, seasonal work), and that this would depend on the perspective and specific circumstances of the young person.

The respondents were therefore not asked directly if they worked in a precarious or flexible job. A combination of questions were used to determine if the respondents' recent employment could be categorised as precarious or flexible. The questions used were:

  • Q5: Do you have a contract that is written and agreed with your employer?
  • Q1a: Thinking about your most recent employment, which of the following best applies to you? (permanent, fixed term, temporary, casual, etc.)
  • Q6a: Which of the following describes your most recent employment contract/employment? (full time, part time, zero hours, etc.)

If the respondent did not have a written, agreed contract in their current or most recent employment (Q5) they were categorised as working in a precarious or flexible position. The response to this question has been prioritised over the other questions used.

If the respondent did have a written, agreed contract then they have only been categorised as working in a precarious or flexible position if they stated they were working in a temporary, casual, seasonal, or a short term role (Q1a).

If the respondent did have a written contract but was in a permanent or fixed-term position over a year then they have only been categorised in this sub-group if they stated they were on a zero hours or varying hours contract or just turned up for work (Q6a). A full overview of the approach used to define those respondents who are / are not in some form of precarious / flexible work is set out in Box E1.

Box E1: Definition of precarious / flexible work overview

For the purposes of this report and analysis the precarious / flexible and non-precarious / flexible sub-groups have been categorised in the following way:

Precarious or flexible working positions:

  • No written agreed contract

or

  • Written agreed contract but in a temporary, casual, seasonal position

or

  • Written agreed contract in a permanent or fixed term position but on a zero hours or varying hours contract or just turned up for work

Not precarious or/ flexible working positions:

  • Written agreed contract and permanent or fixed term (over 1 year) position and full or part time contract

or

  • Self-employed, running own business

or

  • Written agreed contract and on an Apprenticeship

Once categorised, as per the definition in Box E1, 55% of the total sample were classified as working in a precarious or flexible working position and 45% were not.

Research findings

Young people's circumstances

The main reasons people were attracted to their job were financial security (31% of the sample) and to top-up their income (20%). Those in precarious or flexible work were much more likely than others to be working to top-up their income (24% compared with 16% of those not in precarious or flexible work), and this rises to 30% for the younger group (those aged 16-19) in precarious or flexible work.

Practicality was also important for those in precarious or flexible work, with location (22%) and flexibility of shifts and hours (19%) given as reasons for working in their most recent job.

Almost all (94%) of those currently in precarious or flexible work had one job. This may be a reflection of the age group of the study population with around half of them being in education and therefore having limited time to work.

Those in precarious or flexible work were typically working just a few hours each week. A third (34%) worked 14 hours or less, and this rose to nearly half (46%) for the younger age group (aged 16-19). Notably a quarter (26%) of the older age group (aged 20-24) were working 31-40 hours a week.

Awareness of contractual status

Two thirds (66%) of the total sample had a written, agreed contract with their employer. However, a substantial minority (27%) of the sample did not, and this rose to nearly half (49%) for those defined as being in precarious or flexible work. Most (74%) of those without a written contract were informed of their employment conditions verbally.

Young people in precarious or flexible work were less likely than others to be paid at least the minimum wage; be assured of a minimum number of hours work each week; receive holiday pay and sick pay, or have paid public holidays. Those not in precarious or flexible work were significantly more likely to have almost all of the employment rights that were evaluated compared to those in precarious or flexible work.

Types of precarious or flexible working conditions

Well under half (42%) of the overall sample were in a permanent job. Significant minorities of young people were in temporary work (14%) and casual work (14%), while a further 10% were in short term or seasonal work.

A full-time contract was the main type of employment contract: 35% of the sample had a full-time job. Many (14%) had zero hours contracts or said they "just turned up for work" (13%).

More than half of young people (55%) were defined as working in precarious or flexible employment: for example lacking a formal contract, in temporary, casual or seasonal work, or on a zero hours or varying hours contract.

  • Around half of those in precarious/flexible work were in temporary (26%) or casual (25%) work; and
  • Only 14% had a full time contract; most had flexible/no contract, such as zero hours contracts (25%), "just turned up for work" (24%) and varying hours contracts (13%).

Most young people across the total sample worked in Hotels and Restaurants (23%) and in Wholesale and Retail (21%). Those in precarious or flexible work were particularly likely to work in Hotels and Restaurants (30%) compared with those who were not in precarious or flexible work (15%).

Experience of young people in precarious and flexible working conditions

Half of the people in precarious or flexible work were satisfied with their terms of employment overall. This compares with three-quarters of those not in precarious or flexible work.

For people in precarious or flexible work, the main positive characteristic of their employment was their colleagues (mentioned by 45%). Also important were they enjoyed the work, the location, level of pay, gaining experience and flexibility. The qualitative findings provided further insight into why respondents were satisfied with aspects of their employment citing the flexibility of shifts and hours benefitting their current lifestyle, and viewing their current job as a stepping stone to gain experience before progressing to a more permanent job.

Notably those in precarious or flexible work were significantly less likely than others to say they enjoy their work (33% compared with 40%), with the younger group (16-19 year olds) of precarious or flexible workers less likely to enjoy their work (26%). Seven per cent of those in precarious or flexible work said their most recent employment had no positive characteristics.

The biggest issues for people in precarious or flexible work were unsociable hours, low pay, lack of benefits, irregular hours and long hours. This was further supported by findings from the focus groups with respondents stating they were dissatisfied due to not having a written contract, feeling pressured to accept shifts, and uncertainty about working hours / times.

A substantial minority of those in precarious or flexible work felt that their employment was having adverse impacts on their lives. For example around a fifth felt it impacted negatively on their mental health (21%) or on their relationships (17%); while nearly a third felt it impacted negatively on their social lives.

Changing working circumstances

Half (49%) of those in precarious or flexible work would like to change their working situation in the next year. Most (64%) would like to move to another company.

  • The main reasons for wanting to change job were to get better pay (45%), increase hours (42%) and better prospects (41%). Also important was a change in the type of contract (22%). Notably those who were not in precarious or flexible work were much less likely to give increased hours as a reason for changing job (17%).
  • The main barriers for those in precarious or flexible work face getting another job were lack of jobs (33%), lack of experience (26%) and lack of qualifications (24%). Those not in education faced acute barriers, with 40% citing a lack of jobs and 33% lack of qualifications.

Those in precarious or flexible work had typically found their most recent job using an informal approach, with more than half (55%) getting their job through word of mouth, while others used social media, speculative CVs and responded to ads posted at the premises.

The information, help and guidance that would most help people in precarious or flexible work to change jobs were work experience or placement opportunities; advice on CV writing; guidance on job searches; and advice on local job opportunities. Those not in education were especially interested in work experience opportunities.

Around half of those in precarious or flexible work would like to receive this information online, with around a third saying they would like this information on social media and a third saying face-to-face.

Key differences were reported by those in education and those not in education who were wanting to change their circumstances. Those not in education were working longer hours, were the least satisfied across all groups and also had a lack of qualifications and confidence. They wanted to improve their prospects and change their shift patterns. Their main reasons for working in their current position was due to a struggle to find a job, the location and the financial security. This differed from those in education.

Conclusions

The findings suggest a "progression" as the audience gets older and circumstances change, e.g. move from school to university or college. The incidence of precarious or flexible working was highest in the youngest age-group, and declined as the audience grew older. Those who were categorised as in precarious or flexible work and were younger (16-19 years old), in education or financially dependent were more likely to be at the higher end of precariousness as they were more likely to not have a written contract and just turn up for work when asked; therefore having very limited security or formal procedures to follow.

While only half (50%) of those who were older (20-24 years old) had a written contract with their employer, the proportion was even lower (36%) for the younger age group. However, some of the younger age group were content with this situation: e.g. flexibility works for their current circumstances as most were still at school, and as suggested by the qualitative findings they expressed a lot of trust in their employer to not exploit them. These findings suggest that some may not be aware of their rights or that, as a minimum, a written statement outlining terms and conditions should still be provided even if working flexible hours.

The findings also highlighted that there are specific sub-groups not content with their current position: they have lower levels of satisfaction and were keen to change their working situation in the next 12 months. The research found that half (49%) of those in precarious or flexible work would like to change their working situation in the next year compared to only a quarter of those not in precarious or flexible positions (24%), suggesting that the precarious/flexible nature of the job contributes towards this.

In conclusion there were four distinct groups, some who require more support than others:

1. Those in a precarious/flexible position, not in education and wanting to change working circumstances;

2. Those in a precarious/flexible position, in education and wanting to change working circumstances;

3. Those in a precarious/flexible position and who don't want to change working circumstances; and

4. Those not precarious/flexible position.

Those not in precarious/flexible positions are not the focus for this study as their employment is considered more secure. Those who are in precarious or flexible work but don't want to change their working circumstances are more content with their employment terms overall, and their current employment works well for their circumstances.

There are two groups looking to change jobs, and who may require support. The results have shown that those not in education who have found themselves in this position are the most dissatisfied and disenfranchised with their current employment and require the most support. They are working longer hours, are the least satisfied across all groups and have a lack of qualifications and confidence.

The information and advice that would be most helpful for this group would be help finding work experience or placement opportunities, as well as help on changing career. Practical advice on how to progress out of insecure, zero hours or short term contracts would benefit this group.


Contact

Email: youngpersonguar@gov.scot