For 30 years after the end of World War II, most young people left school at the earliest opportunity and entered full-time employment immediately after. Most school-leavers were able to find work consistent with their ambitions and expectations and getting a job was usually closely followed by leaving home, marriage and parenthood.
For the vast majority of young people today, the journey into adulthood is more complex, truncated and unpredictable than it was for previous generations. But this changing nature of employment is not experienced evenly across society: life as a member of the young “precariat” with uncertain job prospects is very different depending on how well-off your family is already.
In post-war Britain, the move from school to work was often both speedy and collective, and employment alongside older workers also helped reinforce certain attitudes, values and cultural norms. There was often a close connection between family, work and leisure, and the world of work offered a degree of certainty and continuity that does not exist for most young people today.
Yet we should not look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Factory jobs were a bleak and alienating experience for many, and not all young people settled easily into working life – the ready availability of employment masked the way some “churned” chronically from job to job.
Today, few young people go into full-time employment immediately after leaving school and secure work is difficult to find – not only for those with few qualifications. Of those graduating from UK universities in 2014, more than a fifth still did not have a job six months later, and almost a third of those who were in work were in employment which did not require a degree.
New figures published by the Higher Education Funding Council do show that three-and-a-half years after leaving university, 96.4% of graduates were employed, 80% of them in “professional occupations”. However, the experience is different for black and minority ethnic graduates: only 66% had a “professional” occupation.
The birth of the precariat
Despite various claims about skills shortages and young people’s supposed lack of “employability skills”, underemployment – being in a job for which you are over-qualified or having part-time, temporary or insecure employment – is now a significant problem, especially for younger workers.
Part of the consequences of this means that access to the traditional signifiers of adulthood – not only finding a job but leaving home, financial independence, getting married, and so forth – have become disturbed or suspended, in some cases almost indefinitely.
It is against this backdrop that British economist Guy Standing, drawing on the ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, has argued that we have seen the rise of a distinct social class – the precariat. Their working lives and social experiences are broadly characterised by uncertainty, insecurity and uncertain future prospects.
It is difficult to definitively measure the size of this new precariat. There were 1.7m people working in temporary jobs in the UK between May and July 2015, according to the Office of National Statistics, which also says 744,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts between April and June. Figures it released in August show there are also 922,000 16-24 year olds classified as not in education, employment or training (NEET).
Young people are particularly vulnerable to such circumstances, but research also suggests that labour market insecurity is not merely a phase confined to youth. Repeated periods of unemployment, often interspersed with repetitive training programmes and various dead-end jobs, is becoming the norm well into adulthood, especially for those from less affluent backgrounds.
Cultural capital counts
The precarious nature of the 21st century labour market is more serious for some than others. As Bourdieu highlighted in 1986, young people from different social class backgrounds have access to greater or lesser amounts of social, economic and cultural capital. Those from higher social classes are often able to mobilise these forms of capital in ways which provide significant advantages over others.
While economic capital can be used to pay course fees or limit student debt, it can also subsidise young people through the low-paid internships which are increasingly necessary in order to break into desirable occupations such as law, advertising, fashion or the media. It can also allow young people to travel or take a “year out” to enrich their CV and build the cultural capital – attitudes, interests and dispositions – which employers often demand, especially in the most prestigious forms of employment.
Cultural capital is, however, mainly associated with certain qualities accrued within the family, via the education system and other long-term forms of socialisation and cultural activity. It is evident in the different accents, dispositions, attitudes and expectations displayed by individuals from different backgrounds. Social capital is related to this and includes networks of family, friends and broader connections through which those from the higher social classes are able to secure interviews, negotiate work experience, and obtain employment.
Sadly, those who lack the social economic and cultural capital to be able “work” the harsh realities of the 21st century labour market are most likely to enter up the precariat – and stay there.