Mind the representation gap

Published on Incomes and Inequality

We’ve heard a lot about fairness between the generations recently. Housing is normally the issue at hand. After all, home ownership is becoming an ever more distant dream for a growing number of millennials. As a result, twenty somethings are now spending £44,000 more on rent during their 20s than the baby boomers did.

And yet it turns out that when you ask young people about their plight they actually cite work related issues as a bigger concern than housing.

Why might this be the case? Pay must play a role – young people saw the largest fall in real earnings of any group between 2009 and 2014 – as will the quality of work and rising insecurity, such as zero-hours contracts, agency working and the gig economy. But behind stagnant pay and changing experiences of work lies another, all-too-often overlooked, trend: the rapid decline in trade union membership among Britain’s younger workers.

Older workers have always been more likely to be members of trade unions. But this gap is widening over time as trade union membership rates are falling faster among the young. Two decades ago 27 per cent of those in their late 20s were trade union members, this has now fallen to just 18 per cent. In contrast, 30 per cent of those in their 50s are signed-up.

Trade union members aren’t just older than average, they are also much more likely to work in the public sector and in higher paying jobs too. These differences compound to produce one of the most striking inequalities in the UK today: under 30s in the lowest-paid jobs in the private sector are now 26 times less likely to be members of a trade union than over 50s in highly paid public sector roles, a ratio that has increased by almost a third since the turn of the century.

This representation gap is a long-standing, un-commented on, fact of the UK labour market. The people who are most in need of support from a trade union are the ones least likely to get it.

The bringing together of generational and economic inequalities means that the reasons for such a large gap in representation are never going to be easy to untangle. But it’s safe to say that one factor will be the nature of work carried out by those on the lowest wages. With regular cycles in and out of low-pay and no-pay, less certainty over hours, and strong resistance from employers towards unionisation of low-paid staff it’s not entirely surprising that unions find this part of the economy hard to reach.

It’s less clear-cut, though, why membership is falling among younger workers. Figuring out why, and reversing this trend, is shaping up to be one of the major focuses of TUC attention in the coming years. Which is important, because there’s a lot we still don’t know. For example, what do young people actually want from trade unions – is it the same thing as older generations, or are new services and forms of support needed? What will it take to convince young people to sign-up when the cost of membership is higher than, for example, a subscription to Spotify?

Answering these questions, and closing the representation gap, isn’t going to be easy – but effectively reaching out is possible. Over the past year, we’ve seen that active trade unions (working with investigative journalists and enquiring MPs) can make a difference outside of their areas of strength – the move away from zero-hours contracts in Sports Direct stores or the court judgement in favour of classifying Uber drivers as workers not self-employed are cases in point.

We are also seeing more examples, mainly from the US, of technology being used to help under-represented workers. This is something we want to see more of in the UK, and is the reason why the Resolution Trust has launched a new programme, WorkerTech, to back those with ideas that can make this happen (for which applications are open until January 8th).

We can’t mend all of generational and economic inequalities in the UK – but it’s about time we did more to iron out one of the biggest divides there is. For established trade unions this will mean navigating some genuine trade-offs between the interests of younger and older workers. For example, to some degree millennials’ pay rises are being held back by the oncoming baby boomer pension bulge. But no-one should expect this to become a theme of union campaigns in 2017 – just look at who they represent.

Instead, 2017 should be the year when the representation gap is finally treated seriously by those that want to see a better deal for those at the bottom end of the UK labour market. There’s a lot that can be done to close the divide and it’s time to start doing it.