Hipster economics: how gen Y is redefining the jobs market

Youth unemployment has dropped to impressively low levels in recent years. But the stats mask an astonishing move into freelance enterprise as young people turn their backs on traditional employment. So what’s REALLY the future of the jobs market for young people? Iona delves in…

FIRST PUBLISHED: 2011

FULLY UPDATED: 2017

Iona Bain

How do you solve a problem like youth unemployment?

It is a troublesome matter at the best of times. Even when the economy seems to be in good shape, young people don’t just walk into jobs and keep them. Skills shortages, too few apprenticeships and a dearth of opportunity in some regions have been long-standing obstacles to young people finding work in this country.

When recession hits, the problem becomes a crisis. When I first wrote this guide in 2011, the wounds of the financial crash were still raw. Statistics had just been released showing that 895,000 people were out of work in the first half of that year. That was a reduction of 79,000 from the disastrous record figures that followed the credit crunch, but within those statistics was a retreat of some 61,000 young people into full-time education – categorised as “economically inactive”.

Across the tail-end of 2016 going into 2017, the numbers of young people out of work dropped to 558,000, down 72,000 from the previous year. However, the number who are in full-time education (and “economically inactive”) stands at 193,000.

This isn’t all so bad. To quote Tony Blair (and I wish I didn’t have to); education, education, education. Surely that’s the way to ensure young people have the brightest possible future? With more qualifications and skills under your belt, the possibility of a well-paid, full-time career is that much sharper when you are good and ready to enter the workplace.

So as more young people take refuge in education, previous reports of a “lost generation” (at least in terms of employment) now seem slightly overblown. Except some new, massively important questions have arisen; is full-time work paying enough to justify the personal sacrifices often involved? Is high-quality work only within reach of those who can afford to take unpaid internships? Are graduates getting the highly-skilled jobs they might have hoped for? The answer to all those is “perhaps not”, as this recent blog has argued.

And so gen Y is taking back control. Young people (indeed the working population as a whole) are gradually starting to embrace “giganomics” as a whole new way of working. But are we properly prepared for it? Will it ultimately work for or against us?

According to the charity Full Fact, some 38 per cent of the 16-24 year old population work part-time compared to just over a quarter of the population. Now, many of them are in full-time education so probably don’t want more hours. What really matters is what comes next, so maybe we should be looking at the older age brackets to see how the jobs market might shake out in the long term. The picture is mixed, to say the least.

Self-employment is rising rapidly, now set to overtake the public sector workforce in terms of numbers. For many, that decision is a positive and enabling one. For others, it is less than ideal. For instance, the Office for National Statistics has noted that younger women have adjusted pretty well to the freelance model but self-employed young men? Not so much.

Aylish Jarvie

However, Aylish Jarvie, head of economic research at freelance database peopleperhour.com, says:

“In the wider economy, there is a rapidly growing number of people choosing to work in a less traditional environment and take advantage of the rapidly growing gig economy.

“Millennials are the driving force behind this move and, as they continue to strive for better work-life balance, there is an increasing realisation that this way of working is not only becoming mainstream but threatening to completely disrupt the way businesses and the workforce interact. Furthermore, beyond the way people work, the way people buy is rapidly shifting towards the gig and sharing economy.”

Six years ago, sites like PPH.com were still a bit of a novelty. Now they have been joined by a whole raft of freelance & “odd-job” apps like Task Rabbit, with a wave of students and young workers signing up in recent times. Indeed, PPH reports that 64 per cent of the students who use its site say that freelancing is “part of their long-term plans”.

Little wonder. When I look around at my friends, most are living in uncertainty, despite having a clutch of impressive school and university/college qualifications. It seems that their education hasn’t actually qualified them enough to get the full-time job that would have been expected in the past.

So many university students have paid top dollar for all kinds of degrees that have become seriously devalued – if not lost their worth. On top of that, not enough degrees provide the specific skills that would make graduates 100 per cent employable from the get go.

Millennials were told throughout their young lives to find a career they can be “passionate” about. But many end up just feeling grateful to be in a stop-gap job, whether their heart is in it or not. Yet they also resent having to subsume their identity into an organisation that doesn’t give them nearly the same level of benefits or pay that was a standard a generation ago.

Bean bags, foosball tables and yummy doughnuts in the fridge have all featured in my previous workplaces. But none of that can make up for the nonsensical pay disparity between complacent management and their employees, propped up by a rigidly hierarchical structure where senior positions aren’t necessarily (or even usually) occupied by the best candidates. Then there are the arbitrary and intrusive requirements imposed on employees (such as taking ridiculous personality tests and going on cringe-making away days), as well as puny pensions and anti-social working hours.

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STICK IT TO THE MAN!!!!

Upwardly mobile young people just don’t want to give up their lives for that kind of offer – and I don’t blame them. We’re gigging up because when full-time, well-remunerated and satisfying work is thin on the ground…well, we haven’t got that much to lose. In fact, we could have everything to gain; businesses are predicted to take on more gig workers to compensate for the restriction of cheap foreign labour that will inevitably occur post-Brexit. And if you can find that highly lucrative niche, the sky’s the limit, as this chap has shown in making £1.6 million just by teaching IT through the online platform Udemy.

But that doesn’t mean that it won’t be a bumpy ride. The latest report into “giganomics” from PPH.com says we now have to be more “entrepreneurial” in nature and figure out how to make it work for us if we’re not as focused on climbing the career ladder as previous generations. And research from the Self-Employed and Freelance Association shows that creative freelancers lose out on £5,000 a year due to unpaid work, with young and female workers the most likely to either accept work for nothing or fail to ensure they are paid for jobs already done.

The first step is to NOT get sucked into a zero hours or “maxi” hours contract (a phenomenon I exposed here) if you genuinely wish to pursue different opportunities and expand your horizons. I appeared on 5 Live’s Wake up To Money recently with Ursula Hews, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire. She told me that workers are at risk of being hemmed in by employers who demand high productivity lest we get the boot (as is the case with Uber, hence the ruling which deemed its workers to be employees rather than agile gigsters. You can read more about this here).

And ultimately, there will always be a conflict between employers who want certainty of work delivered and employees who want the choice to accept work as and when they wish.

But you can call the shots FAR more easily if you skill up – and I don’t mean an endless list of degrees under your belt. It is now entirely possible to attain the practical and technical skills that will help you move with the times, thanks to online courses like those offered by the Open University. And some are even free, including the Future Learn programme that has helped me learn all about personal finances and investing.

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The gig economy has become tainted by its association with unhappy peddlers across London, complaining that they are at gigging platforms’ beck and call. But millennials with great specialities are turning it to their advantage. Young doctors disillusioned with the medical profession are now going onto the Doctaly app, which provides same-day appointments for the 25 per cent of people willing to pay for it. And in my profession (the media), the number of bright young journalists going freelance is testament to just how agreeable this option is becoming (even if its only by comparison to the increasingly disagreeable environment of the newsroom).

And the freelancer can thrive if they have nurtured those much-derided but actually quite essential “soft” skills. Most of the highest-achieving self-employed people I know are commensurate net-workers. They are not necessarily endowed with the greatest skill-set or educational qualifications but impressive in how they can win people over with what they do (as well as be diplomatic but firm when the occasion demands it!)

Since leaving university in 2009, I’ve been in and out of the workplace, with my stretches of self-employment getting longer between every job. This latest stint has been the longest yet (three years) and I can honestly say that I can’t imagine going back into full-time work anytime soon (despite being frequently head-hunted). Simply put, I love it too much. I can be free-thinking, well-rounded and always playing to my strengths. I honestly believe it is the future for those who are adaptable, determined and imaginative enough to make a success of it.

I will be covering my tips on how to make it work in future blogs, and you can check out my musings on the subject here and here. But let’s just say that if you’re already seriously thinking about self-employment, that might be your cue to jump – you’ll probably never look back.

What do you think? Tweet me @ionayoungmoney or leave a comment below…

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