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.

2. Approach to research

2.1 Approach

The primary research comprised two elements: (i) qualitative focus groups; and (ii) a quantitative survey. Ten qualitative focus groups were conducted across various locations in Scotland (see section 2.2) 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 lasted up to 75 minutes and the respondents received a monetary incentive as a thank you for participating. A copy of the focus group topic guide is included in Appendix B. This stage was used to inform the questionnaire development for the quantitative research (survey) and to contextualise and triangulate the quantitative results.

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. This was to ensure that those working seasonally or on temporary contracts could be included in the sample. 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). A copy of the questionnaire is included in Appendix C.

2.2 Sample

Qualitative research – recruitment

Each focus group consisted of between four and eight participants. The focus groups took place in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Peterhead and Galashiels. Two groups were held at each location: one with 16-19 year olds and one with 20-24 year olds. The overall sample size was 66.

All participants were 16-24 year olds, currently employed or had held a job in the previous 6 months. They were recruited on the basis that they were not in permanent employment or in a fixed term position of over a year or on a full time contract. They also had to state that three out of four employment conditions didn't apply to them. These included: (1) paid above the national minimum wage; (2) eligible for employer pension contributions; (3) in receipt of employment benefits; and (4) offered training opportunities. This was in an attempt to ensure only those who were considered to be in the more insecure, precarious working positions were recruited for the focus groups.

Qualitative research – profile of respondents

A good mix of age, gender, urban/rural locations and types of employment was achieved across the sample. Job types included a wide range of occupations. SIMD quintiles were used to identify and monitor the proportion of respondents that lived in the 20% most deprived areas and those that didn't. Full details of the qualitative sample profile is reported in Appendix E

Quantitative research – recruitment

All quantitative respondents were 16-24 years old and either currently employed in Scotland or had been employed in Scotland during the previous 24 months. No restrictions were placed on the type of employment for this stage of the research, therefore the sample consists of young people in a range of employment types from permanent, full time positions to temporary, casual and zero hours contracts. A representative sample of 16-24 year olds in employment, across Scotland was needed.

Published data was used to set quotas. There was limited published data on employed 16-24 year olds therefore for demographics, where this wasn't available, quotas were set using profile data on 16-24 year olds in general. Data sources used to set quotas were the NRS Mid-year population statistics 2018 and the Labour Force Survey (ONS, 2018). A full breakdown of the quotas applied is shown in Appendix E.

Interviewers approached potential respondents in the street and asked them to participate. The screener questionnaire ensured respondents were within the appropriate age range, met all other selection criteria, and were within the quotas that had been set for gender and location.

As quota controls guided the sample selection, precise margins of error or significance testing are not appropriate, as the sampling type is non-probability. The margins of error outlined below are therefore indicative, based on an equivalent probability sample.

The final sample size was 1,043 which provides a data set with an approximate margin of error of between ±0.6% and ±3.0%, calculated at the 95% confidence level (market research industry standard). The sub samples used provide a dataset with the following approximate margins of error:

  • - Precarious/flexible, sample size of 569 = ±0.8% and ±4.1%
  • - Not precarious/flexible, sample size of 443 = ±0.9% and ±4.7%

An example of this for the total sample of 1,043 is if the survey found that 50% of respondents agreed with a statement, we can be confident in most cases the actual value would be between 47% and 53%. Any increase or decrease reported of more than this is not due to chance or sampling error, but reflects a real difference between sub-groups. Full details on how these sub-groups have been identified is reported in section 2.5.

Quantitative research – profile of respondents

Full details of the quantitative sample profile is reported in Appendix E. Quota sampling was used to ensure that a representative sample of 16-24 year olds across Scotland was achieved. Quotas were set against age, gender and location. There were limited published data on 16-24 year olds in Scotland who are employed, therefore different sources were used to determine the proportion of interviews needed across each of the different variables. Full details are shown in Appendix E. Ethnicity, education status and whether they were financially independent or not fell out naturally.

2.3 Analysis and reporting

Throughout this report, any reported significant differences (between sub-groups of the sample) were statistically significant at the 95% confidence level. No differences are reported unless they were statistically significant. Sub-group analysis has not been carried out on any sub-group that has a sample size of less than 50. Sub-group analysis has been conducted on the following: (1) if in a precarious/flexible role; (2) age; (3) education status; (4) financial dependence; and (5) if the desire to change working conditions. The margin of errors for these sub-groups are shown in Appendix E.

All findings are based on the responses that the respondents gave or the respondents' own perception.

Standard notation is used in tables with '*' used to indicate results of less than 1% and '-' used to indicate no respondents gave a particular answer. For ease of reading the results, '1%' and '2%' notations have been left off some of the figures.

Where percentages in figures and tables do not total the figures quoted in the text, this is due to rounding.

2.4 Limitations to the research

Qualitative research

Due to the smaller sample size, it was not feasible to reflect all types of precarious, flexible and insecure work in the qualitative sample. The age range of 16-24 year olds had an impact on the types of work that the respondents undertook; for example, none of the respondents had a job in the gig economy such as working for courier or delivery companies.

Recruiting the focus groups was challenging because of the target audience required. Recruitment commenced two weeks prior to each focus group taking place. This was to ensure it was close enough to the focus group date that participants remembered to attend, but also gave enough time to recruit the required number of participants. It did pose problems for the potential participants: a number had to decline because they didn't know if they would be working or not; others who were keen to participate were not able to commit until last minute as they only find out their shifts a few days in advance. Procedures were put in place to contact all participants a couple of days prior to the focus group to ensure they could still attend. There was still a low turn-out to the first focus group due to last minute cancellations; therefore all other focus groups were over-recruited to compensate for this. This did not have any effect on the final results, however it is important to note that the impact these positions have on their day-to-day lives and planning was evident as part of the research recruitment process.

Quantitative research

There were very few limitations to the quantitative research, as many potential limitations had been addressed at the research design stage. A face-to-face approach was adopted over an online approach to ensure that a robust sample of employed 16-24 year olds could be achieved. It also allowed for control over quotas to ensure a representative sample of 16-24 year olds in Scotland was achieved.

It is more accurate to adopt a probability sampling approach whereby everyone in the desired population has a known and equal chance of being selected for the survey; however with such a large population this would be very expensive and time-consuming. Quota sampling, which is a non-probability sampling method, was carried out. Not all members of the desired population had a chance of participating in the study as the interviewers had set quotas e.g. age, gender, that they worked towards. This approach was adopted to ensure a representative sample could still be achieved in a timely and cost-effective way. The overall sample size of 1,043 is a robust sample.

As there is no standard definition of precarious work, a working definition had to be developed for this study as previously stated in Chapter 1. The definiton adopted, "precarious and flexible work", draws on the evidence review, the qualitative findings and discussion with the project team, and is clearly explained in section 2.5 below and Chapter 5. The final categorisation used has allowed for robust analysis of those working in jobs that are less secure. The analysis conducted suggests that the categorisation used is appropriate as explained further in section 2.5.

2.5 Defining precarious and flexible work

To address the RQs it was important to identify the research participants that were potentially in precarious or flexible work and 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.

As stated previously, the definition adopted, "precarious and flexible work", for this research draws on the evidence review, the qualitative findings and discussion with the project team (see Chapter 1). The respondents were not asked directly if they worked in a precarious or flexible job. A combination of questions was 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.)

These questions were identified as the most relevant based on findings from the evidence review. In particular, Benach et al. (2016) stated the three approaches to defining precarious working common in existing research are:

  • defining it as referring to any non-standard work type such as zero hours (i.e. any employment that is not through a permanent, full-time contract);
  • defining it in relation to the attributes of a job, taking into account various aspects of the employment context (e.g. low wages, limited rights, powerlessness to exercise legally granted workplace rights); and / or
  • defining precariousness as relating to certain sectors of the labour market.

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 position (Q1a).

If the respodent did have a written, agreed contract but was in a permanent or fixed-term position over a year then they have only been categorised as working in a precarious or flexible position if they stated they were on a zero hours or varying hours contract or just turned up for work (Q6a). A small number of respondents identified themselves as self-employed/freelance and were included in the precarious or flexible sub-group because they stated that they were on a ZHC or varying hours contract. Anyone who specifically stated that they were running their own business was categorised as not in a precarious or flexible position.

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 2.1. The variables and calculation used is shown in full in Appendix D.

Box 2.1: 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


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


  • Self-employed, running own business


  • Written agreed contract and on an Apprenticeship

Once categorised, as per the definition in Box 2.1, 55% of the total sample were classified as working in a precarious or flexible working position and 45% were not. Analysis has been carried out on those who have been categorised as working in a precarious or flexible position and those who have not throughout the report. When the report refers to "precarious or flexible work" it is using the definition as set out above. The sub-group analysis reflects findings reviewed as part of the evidence report and supports the qualitative findings suggesting that the categorisation used is robust.



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