High employment can mask a growing precarity problem for Britain’s workers

Insecure forms of work mean that employment doesn’t always confer the security it did in the past

April 10, 2023
Credit: Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo
Credit: Iain Masterton / Alamy Stock Photo

Recent times have not been kind to those struggling with rising bills and precarious finances. Looking back at the March Budget—the third fiscal event in six months—confirms the scale of a challenge which has only intensified since. While Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s statement tried to paint an optimistic picture of a rebounding economy, high rates of inflation, flailing public sector salaries and continued strike action point to a bleaker reality. And while Hunt focussed on interventions to get more people into work, his budget did little to assist the growing number of citizens who—although already in work—are fast becoming part of a hopeless, “insecure society”, where their precarious material circumstances are impacting their mental health. 

This tapped into a wider feeling of unease amongst a growing body of insecure workers. According to a 2022 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Britain’s working population is uniquely exposed to precarity, with insecure finances, insecure employment, a lack of long term job prospects, and the consequent mental anguish that these circumstances entail.

The authors, Tom Clark (a Prospect contributing editor) and Andrew Wenham, cite research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showing that “over 40% of Britons are either in poverty (and therefore palpably exposed to unexpected costs) or otherwise “financially insecure” [lacking] the liquid assets to keep themselves out of poverty for three months if their income stopped”.

This means that if a fridge breaks down, a car needs repairing, or some other unforeseen, non-typical cost comes up, a person is in deep trouble. Sometimes the only option for low-income workers is to borrow their way out of the problem—and potentially at high interest. Low-income workers are particularly likely to have to resort to high interest borrowing due to issues with their credit scores. Some low-income people are penalised for the fact that there is no credit information held about them, which is typical if they are part of a household that is renting but they are not the primary bill payer.  

The report compares emerging mass precarity with job figures generally. Official government data shows that robust employment growth over the 2010s means that “the immediate fear of worklessness is not what it was 10 or 12 years ago”. However, having a job is no longer a guarantee for stability or financial health. The authors say that insecure forms of work—which are back on the rise—mean that employment doesn’t always confer the security it did in the past.  

 Other recent research has presented similar findings. A recent review of the UK labour market by the Office for National Statistics recorded mostly positive outcomes for the country’s early post-pandemic recovery. Some 29.5m people are payrolled employees. However, the rub is that unsatisfactory forms of work arrangement, like zero-hours contracts, are rising—roughly one million adults are on these contracts. Just a decade ago the number was 190,000.

 There are categories of workers disproportionately represented in these figures. 11.3 per cent of people aged 16-24 in the UK were employed on a zero-hours contract in the last quarter of 2021, compared to 1.8 per cent of people aged 35-49. This has led the thinktank the Resolution Foundation to conclude that younger people recently returning to work “post-lockdown” are more likely than average to be on insecure contracts. It has not been a positive recovery for everyone.

Other analysis shows how women and ethnic minority workers are impacted including women and ethnic minority workers. Evidence compiled by the Women's Budget Group found that a “small increase in zero-hours contracts was experienced by women”, since the pandemic hit, with a peak of 3 per cent of women working on zero hours contracts as opposed to 2 per cent of men. And the Living Wage Foundation found that nearly “half (45%) of all minority ethnic workers are given less than a week’s notice of their shifts, compared to 28% of white workers”.

 Many organisations have proposed solutions for this rising precarity. The Women’s Budget Group calls for flexible working as a right coupled with a well-resourced labour rights monitoring body. The JRF notes that the Employment Bill— which includes provisions for the right to request more predictable terms and conditions at work—is a great opportunity to make sure jobs work for everyone.

But we mustn't idly wait for this revolution in good work to happen. In the meantime we need to strengthen legal services in our community which advocate for people stuck in the new and growing world of employment precarity. The provision of employment services and debt advice needs to adapt to the ever-shifting pool of workers most affected.

The nation’s economy is in a crisis, compared to international neighbours. At the same time so are the circumstances of its citizens. We tend to hear a lot less about that. For work to work for everyone, it should be a route to decent housing and a secure life. An economy that leaves 40 per cent of the population in financial insecurity is a broken one—a reality the chancellor cannot afford to ignore.