The Experiences of Precarious Work amongst UK University Graduates. What are its Impacts and why do Graduates take it up?

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

61 Pages, Grade: 70+


Table of contents

List of Tables and Figures

List of Acronyms


Appendix 1: Vignettes
Appendix 2: Key Definitions


This dissertation was made possible by the continued support of my friends and family. I am also greatly indebted to my supervisor Dr Rebecca Taylor, who was not only most helpful with resolving any of my queries, but also believed in my abilities throughout the process of this dissertation. Lastly, I would like to thank the participants of this study who found time for the interviews despite a frequently stressful and unpredictable work life.

List of Tables and Figures

Table 3.1 Demographics of Participants (Source: Author)

Figure 3.1 Reduced Tucker (2002) Indicators (Source: Author/Tucker, 2002)

Table 4.1 Demographic Profile of Participants (Source: Author)

Table 4.2 Precarious Work Indicators (Source: Author)

List of Acronyms

illustration not visible in this excerpt


'Precarious employment' constitutes work that is characterised by multiple sources of insecurities and uncertainties, which is spreading across the industrialised world, particularly since the 2008-9 recession. Despite heavy investment in their education, today it is not uncommon for University graduates to take on precarious and often lower-skilled employment. Research on graduates in precarious work has been scarce and mostly comprised of quantitative studies, such as graduate surveys. This study therefore contributes to an under-researched area of graduate experiences, focusing on impacts on working and private lives. Qualitative methods were used and 13 interviews were conducted with UK university graduates, who obtained their degree after the 2008-9 recession and had experienced precarious work. The findings revealed various reasons for graduates engagement in precarious work, but centrally it did not stem from individual choices, as suggested by a recent European Commission report (2011), but rather presented the only employment participants could find or afford to take up. This also intersected with social class, as those from traditional working class backgrounds found it most difficult to find non-precarious employment, whereas gender, race and the reputation of Universities did not show any significant impact. The nature of graduates work was found to be highly precarious, with multiple implications for working and private lives. In contrast to previous findings (Murgia & Poggio, 2014) at the work place, UK graduates were not only predominately concerned with being overqualified, but equally so with precarious circumstances. Strikingly, positive impacts of precarious work and strategies adapted to cope with these circumstances also emerged, which present two previously almost unexplored phenomena. Lastly, findings not only re-affirmed that precarious work impacts on other spheres of life, but also highlighted the areas of private life that were most affected. This study provides much needed empirical evidence on the experiences of UK graduates in precarious work and the reasons for taking it up, and should thus be of interest for policy reforms and for future research.

1. Introduction

Secure, full- day, and will be hard to imagine for many workers in contemporary society. Given the economic changes within industrialised countries over the last decades, and particularly since the 2008- of insecurity and uncertainty for almost everyone (Kalleberg, 2011). There has, however, also been an increase in jobs characterised by multiple insecurities and uncertainties, so- fficult to quantify, as this can include several forms of work. However, as an example, the number of zero-hour contract workers in the UK has risen from 51.000 in 2005 (ONS, 2013) to 1 million in 2013 (CIPD, 2013), with unofficial estimates as high as 5.5 million (Unite, 2013).

Today, political and academic circles widely agree on the necessity to study PW. The (2011, p.1), arguing, similar to much other research, that PW may not only heavily impact on working life, but also on other spheres of life. Despite considerable attention devoted to the issue of PW, research focused on graduates has been scarce, Higher Education. Recent research and labour market statistics, however, indicate that graduates are equally exposed to risks of the labour market, and it has even been proposed that recent graduates are amongst those most at risk (EC, 2011). The existing research on graduates in PW has mostly been quantitative and constituted of survey data (e.g. REFLEX, 2007), which has left a gap in terms of in-depth insights into faced by graduates in PW, by adopting a qualitative approach. The study was conducted in the UK, as it not only has the most lightly regulated labour market and second-highest rate of graduation (54% CIPD) in Europe, but also high graduate underemployment (over-education), with 1 in 3 graduates in non-graduate jobs 5 years after obtaining their degree (ONS, 2013). This is problematic, as non-graduate jobs are more likely to be lower- - graduates will see limited return on their investment in higher education. In summary, this research aims to provide much-needed empirical insight into the experiences of UK graduates in PW, including the reasons for taking it up, which should have implications for policy reform and future research.

1.1 Research Objectives

This research was guided by the following objectives: To understand the motivations and circumstances of graduates taking up precarious work. Is this shaped by gender, the reputation of the University attended, class and/or race? To investigate what impact the experience of precarious work has on The objectives represent key areas I had identified as requiring further investigation, in order to gain a better understanding of experience in PW. The importance of studying each research objective will be discussed in more detail in the literature review (Chapter 2). Chapter 3 will present the methodologies employed in discussion and findings analyse the findings for each of the research objectives. The final chapter will provide a summary and conclusion, outline strengths and weaknesses of the research and offer recommendations for areas of policy reform and future research.

1.2 Limitations

The study will not be representative of all graduates in PW, partly as they were non-STEM graduates and 61% were white or white British (lacking ethnic diversity). Further, the qualitative nature of the research raises questions of subjectivity and replicability, due to my interpretations throughout the research process. However, employment of the framework method (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003) for analysis strengthened the reliability and replicability of the findings, as it helped maintain a close link to the original data. Although the number of participants (13) sufficed for answering the research objectives, the findings would be strengthened by a larger sample size. Methodological limitations are further discussed in Chapter 3, while a more comprehensive overview of limitations is presented in Chapter 5.

2. Literature Review

Over the past three decades the industrialised world has seen extreme changes in the organisation of the economy (Kalleberg, 2009). The shift from Fordism to Post-Fordism & Urry, 1987). In addition, processes of globalisation and neoliberalism (e.g. increased privatisation, decreased state regulation), together with the development of new ICTs, have also centrally contributed to these changes (Breman, 2013). What has arisen is an environment that is highly competitive, insecure and uncertain for both employers and employees. Faced with globalised competition and the need for flexibility, employers have, however, transferred many risks and insecurities onto employees in increasingly de-regulated labour markets (Kalleberg, 2011). As a result, power has shifted in favour of the employer in the employee-employer relationship (Beck, 2000). Further, such processes have eroded the standard employment relationship (full-time and permanent with one employer, Supiot, 1999), resulting in diversified forms of work, with a significant increase in so- - -time, temporary, self-employment). Given the diversified forms of employment, employers are able to pay out far fewer non-wage benefits, as such forms of work are less protected by labour laws and unions (Kalleberg, 2012). It has been argued that, regardless of profession, the vast majority of people can no longer expect a fixed accept less favourable conditions (Harvey, 2003; Auer, 2006). Many have noted that the labour market has polaris - Kalleberg, 2011).

The changes have particularly impacted the UK, as it has the most lightly regulated labour market in Europe (Lanning & Rudiger, 2012), thus experiencing a more pronounced shift towards low-skilled jobs than most EU countries (Holmes, 2014) (although balanced by some growth in high-skilled employment). 13 million of the highest rates of HE graduation in Europe (54%, CIPD, 2015). In recent years, there have also been concerns about the number of people on p -hour which includes those who work fewer hours than they would want and those who are overqualified (Bell & Blanchflower, 2013).

Although PW is difficult to quantify, there have been reports of its remarkable growth, and it has attracted much political and academic attention (ILO, 2011), particularly since the 2008/09 recession. It is, however, not a new phenomenon (Famira- Muehlberger, 2014), but instead part of a longer-term historical trend (Frade & Darmon, 2005) that should not be obscured by the recession, as social theorists had constant risks and uncertainties (Deuze, 2007; Sennett, 1998; Taylor, 1991). Overall, the developments described represent a bigger picture of growing economic inequality, having sparked social movements such as Occupy Wall Street (Standing, 2011) or, more recently, nationwide protests about 2016).

Over the last two decades much effort has been directed at understanding PW, especially in Europe, and, thus, many large-scale comparative studies have been conducted (e.g. Laparra et al., 2004; McKay et al., 2012). Despite such research, there is yet no universally accepted definition of PW (Famira-Muehlberger, 2014). The problem does not lie in academic works, but in the different forms PW can take in e new risks for & Gibb, 2009). In fact, the term PW has not been used until recently in the UK (e.g. Grimshaw et al., 2015). The literature is also divided between those who equate PW to non-standard employment (Eurofound, 2010; McKeown, 2005), those who frame it as types of non-standard employment (e.g. temporary) (Scherer, 2009), and those who view it as a multidimensional lack of labour securities (Vosko, 2006; Hannif & Lamm, 2005). Some authors have warned that focusing only on employment status fails to accurately depict the reality of precarious employment (Burgess & Campbell, 1998), as, for example, part-time work can be secure and full-time work insecure (Cranford & Vosko, 2006); neither does it enable us to make judgements about the nature or degree of precariousness (Tucker, 2002). For those adopting a multidimensional approach, Rodgers & Rodgers (1989) have been the most cited and influential. Their four dimensions are:

- Degree of certainty of continuing employment
- Degree of control over work (conditions, wages etc.)
- Degree of labour protection (dismissal, working conditions, social protection etc.)
- Level of (low) income

Since then, the multidimensional approach has been extended by several authors, e.g.

Standing (1993), Tucker (2002) and Olsthoorn (2014). These authors include dimensions such as opportunity for advancement/training, powerlessness, health and on its dimensions makes comparisons among studies difficult, and questions remain ., 2004). when determining precariousness (Tucker, 2002; Vosko, 2006; Loughlin & Murray 2013). This dissertation will operationalise PW in multidimensional terms, following Tucker (2002), i.e., as work entailing a range of insecurities and uncertainties, and strongly endorses this approach. There are also differences in the (Kalleberg, 2009). Women, ethnic minorities, migrants, the disabled, the young, the elderly and those with lower skills or educational attainment are said to be most likely to experience PW (Tucker, 2002; TUC, 2014; Vosko, 2006; Burgess & Connell, 2015). Standing (2011) has argued that diverse social groups make up a new class, the generally be expected, he highlights that some young and highly educated people are also faced with conditions of precarity. In fact, the argument that higher educational attainment offers protection from labour market difficulties no longer holds, since evidence has shown erosion of this protection, as noted by Murgia & Poggio (2014) and Lodovici & Semenza (2012), who interpreted the findings of a large mixed-method study on young graduates by the European Commission (2011). In fact, it has even been claimed that this group is now most at risk of precarious employment (EC, 2011).

Despite this, graduates' PW has received limited academic attention, and thus thisdissertation aims to contribute knowledge to an 'under-researched' area.

Unfortunately, many governments have also failed to appropriately recognise the nature and extent of this achieve high tertiary education levels (EC, 2010), and several large-scale comparative studies such as REFLEX (2007) and CHEERS (2003) have mostly found graduates and precarious transitions only for a minority. While these studies are out- dated and do not capture post-recession trends (Scurry & Blenkinsopp, 2011), more ncerns, with the average time of finding employment now being 5.5 months (Trendence, have been large-scale and quantitative, and general graduate surveys predominantly provide destination figures (e.g. HESA, 2014). Therefore, they enable limited insight and thus, the qualitative approach of this dissertation aims to address this.

In the UK, graduate unemployment is low (4.4%, BIS, 2015), and in the past, studies have reported only limited graduate underemployment (Purcell & Elias, 2004). Successive governments have also maintained that in the so- Becker, 2009 Tholen, 2013; Brown & Hesketh, 2004). However, such notion fails to consider the labour market structure, as increasing the number of knowledge workers does not (Moreau & Leathwood, 2006).

More recently, however, concerns more prominently in media and policy reports (Tholen, 2014). Some scholars have graduate level jobs (Standing, 2011), or have noted that they have become harder to - ., 2007). Essentially, today there are fewer graduate jobs than there are graduates, causing, as many argue, result, graduate underemployment and transitional difficulties no longer affect just a minority (Futuretrack, 2012; Lanning & Rudiger, 2012). A recent ONS study reports that 47% are in non-graduate jobs six months after graduation (2013). The UK therefore has the second highest graduate underemployment rate in Europe (Verhaest & van der Velden, 2010).

While most graduates aim to find secure and graduate-level jobs (Holmes, 2001), it needs to be acknowledged that some graduates choose employment that provides them with flexibility or fits a certain lifestyle (Purcell & Elias, 2004; Lodovici & - Tolbert, 1996; Kirkpatrick & Hoque, 2006) or desire to work in the creative industries that often entail precarious conditions, but offer flexibility and al., 1998) or Booth et al., 2002).

graduates, and while they may well be precarious in themselves, recent policy concerns have also highlighted that those who cannot afford to work un/low-paid are missing opportunities and are therefore more inclined to take up paid forms of PW (Intern Aware, 2013). Alternatively, Barbier (2011) has proposed that individuals in PW are si Barbieri & Scherer, 2009) where graduates undergo longer spells of PW or underemployment, resulting from early transitional difficulties. Despite dominant beliefs that underemployment does generally reduce with time for graduates, studies now suggest that underemployment remains prevalent (for example, 1 in 5, 42 months after graduation - Mosca & Wright, 2011; ONS, 2013). The limited body of qualitative studies with regard to UK graduates has suggested that PW is mostly an outcome of individual choices (e.g. taking first job offer or lifestyle) (Lodovici & Semenza, 2012; EC, 2011). However, due to the limited qualitative attention (Nabi, 2003), this is an avenue that this research will explore further and evaluate.

Regarding which graduates are most likely to be in PW, it is relevant that labour market opportunities are not equal, as might be assumed by the employability discourse (McQuaid & Lindsay, 2005), but impacted by (worst for); (lower socio- economic) class, gender (women), race (ethnic minorities), reputation of HE institution (post-1992), grade achieved, and subject studied (non-STEM) (Moreau & Leathwood, 2006; Scurry & Blenkinsopp, 2011; Brown & Hesketh, 2004; Teichler, 2007; Futuretrack, 2012). Gender and class often receive particular attention. Fudge & Owens (2007) have noted that women are more likely to be in PW, partly due to higher rates of part-time employment i.e. 42% of women and 13.4% of men (ONS, 2015) (partly due to family structures). Even with higher educational attainment this link does not disappear, as male graduates are more likely to have higher-skilled jobs and higher wages than female graduates (ONS, 2013). To explain such trends, there are also arguments that women are supposedly less career-oriented or more altruistic (Chevalier, 2007). Graduate employment is also thought , for example, those from working class backgrounds are less likely to attend a Russell & Boltanski, 1978). Taking up this idea, Burke (2015) found that working class graduates experience more difficult trajectories, due to lower aspirations and the lack of economic capital that requires them to take up employment promptly. He also notes that lacking social and cultural capital is disadvantageous for gaining desired employment (Costa & Murphy success based on their characteristics, more research is needed that evaluates if the reasons for taking up PW are shaped by graduates characteristics, which this research aims to achieve. Ultimately, applicable to all graduates, a study by Santander (2011) found that 80% of employers prefer degree-less individuals with three years of work experience to Faced with risks of the labour market and increasing uncertainty about the return and value of HE, many -actively engaged in their career plans and advancement (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Futuretrack, 2012; Leach, 2015; Highfliers, 2015), however, also taking on individualised discourses (Tomlinson, 2007, 2012). According to individualisation theory, people engage in on- categories such as class and gender are said to have lost their relevance for determining life courses (Beck, 2000; Giddens, 1991; Bauman, 2000).

'Employability' and 'individualisation' thus create a sense of individual responsibility for career outcomes and life choices, which can lead individuals to blame themselves, rather than the labour market structure or social inequalities, when being unsuccessful (Moreau & Leathwood, 2006). Furthermore, for people in underemployment or insecure work, this can also create a mismatch between reality and desired identity,

- anding, 2011; Armano & Murgia, 2013; ONS, 2015).

As outlined above, the career impact of PW and underemployment is either seen as a Booth et al. i & Scherer, 2009), with the latter being particularly detrimental to graduates, as they invested heavily to get better employment (Furlong, 2015). Regardless of the long-term implications, working life is also thought to be impacted by precariousness (EC, 2011). While the implications of underemployment on UK graduates have been studied in some detail (Scurry & Blenkinsopp, 2011), the implications of precariousness have received limited attention, and are therefore the subject of this thesis. A common implication of insecure employment is that workers might either work harder to retain employment or less hard if no future is seen in the employment (Nolan et al., 2000). Lodovici & Semenza (2012) note low motivational levels amongst Spanish graduates in PW, which also links to research on UK graduate underemployment, suggesting that, with limited career prospects in a job, together with unmet career expectations, underemployment can impact on levels of commitment and satisfaction (Scurry & Blenkinsopp, 2007). Given that most PW lacks - (Beaudry et al., 2013). Another frequently reported problem with PW is the fear of having working hours cut, which can create an environment where work is not turned down and concerns are not raised, linking into a general powerlessness at work, particularly on zero-hour contracts (Pennycook et al., 2013). Lastly, a European Commission study (2011), and those who have interpreted it (Murgia & Poggio, 2014; Lodovici & Semenza, 2012), found that, unlike in Italy and Spain, underemployment (over-qualification) in the UK is supposedly of more concern to graduates than precarious working conditions, a claim that needs to be further evaluated, as this dissertation will do.

Precariousness of work does not only impact on careers and working life, but can also affect other spheres of life. The latter has received relatively limited academic attention, although several authors have drawn a clear link between PW and private life, including that of graduates (De Vilhena et al., 2015; Scherer, 2009; ILO, 2011; Murgia & Poggio, 2014). On the other hand, health implications have received much attention, an health can be negatively impacted by PW, e.g. work-related stress/anxiety (Benach et al., 2014; Marmot, 2010), which might be particularly prevalent for graduates who expected full-time and secure work (Clarke et al., 2007). Regarding the unpredictably and insecurities of a low-wage job increase the risk of poverty and can make the planning or managing of expenditures and commitments difficult (Kalleberg, 2009; Pennycook et al., 2013). Unpredictable and unsociable working hours can make it challenging to maintain relationships with friends and family, which is particularly harmful for young people (Woodman, 2012; Furlong, 2015).


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