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What's the Future of Work for Young Brits Going to Look Like?

At a time when the world of work is nothing like what our parents' generation knew, we look at what might happen across the UK.
20 November 2016, 7:00am

There's no way to tell where things headed. The world of work as our parents knew it, typified by sticking to one sector and a couple of jobs within it, looks as though it may never be the same again (for everyone not planning on becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer). As automation, the informal gig economy and the rise in freelancing and juggling several hustles becomes the norm, what's going to happen to the way today's millennials make a living?

It wasn't a surprise to learn recently that the hospitality industry is set to overtake the UK's manufacturing industry – or perhaps, due to a year-long lag in the data, may have already done so. The ONS figures, analysed by social democratic think tank the Fabian Society in an article ominously named "March of the Waiters", show that in hospitality the number of jobs increased by 22 per cent between 2000 and 2015.

There are now 2.2 million people predominantly employed in hospitality, and it accounted for seven per cent of the UK's workforce in 2015 – only 303,000 fewer jobs and one percentage point lower proportionally than manufacturing. These figures are especially important for us because hospitality employers top the table for recruiting young people, while recent UKCES research has shown that hospitality is one of the most likely industries to give school, college or university leavers their first jobs.

Cameron Tait, head of the Fabian Society's Changing Work Centre, explains the situation more clearly. "What we're actually seeing in the UK is a 'hollowing out' of jobs – with middle-tier, skilled jobs in industries like manufacturing declining," he says, "often because the work can be done more efficiently by machines and automated systems, or it's going overseas to countries where labour is cheaper." With news earlier this week that UK unemployment has fallen to an 11-year low, Tait points out that "the new jobs that are being created aren't as rewarding or productive as some of the old jobs".

The descriptor "rewarding and productive" might itself be up for debate. Nick Beard, 22, has been working in a small spice factory since July, and says that the negatives of the job are that his day-to-day tasks feel more boring than serving customers.

"The positives are that I work more sociable hours than my friends who work in hospitality, am paid better by the company I work for and feel like I have a higher level of job security," he says. "In general, I feel like the decline of the manufacturing industry has led to a large number of people becoming disenfranchised in this country."

Manufacturing was once a mainstay of the British jobs markets, but has steadily declined since the 1980s (thanks, Thatcher). Sheffield Hallam University professor and labour market analyst Christina Beatty, co-author of recent study Jobs, Welfare and Austerity, agrees that government policy has led to our current situation.

"We've gone from being the workshop of the world to a country that's sustained by the service industries and the financial sector," she says. "We don't really make anything anymore. Encouraging young people to get training and qualifications to go for jobs that are more stable in the future is going to be better for our economy."

Brexit, despite its many flaws, arguably might be an opportunity to influence policy on manufacturing in a positive way. The government could have more freedom to support the industry, and when the post-Brexit trade deal is finalised Theresa May may be able to focus public investment into manufacturing.

But not everyone agrees that manufacturing is key to the success of our country going forward. "I'm a bit sceptical about whether inherently we have to bring back manufacturing to make a success of the economy post-Brexit," says Charlie Cadywould, a researcher at think tank Demos. "One of the biggest problems is productivity, which has been a huge issue in the UK for a very long time. The referendum vote brings to the fore all these pre-existing long-term problems."

Productivity is a buzzword at the moment when it comes to how work for young people is likely to progress. A Lloyds Banking Group report highlights a widespread concern about productivity levels in the UK economy, led by the fact that there aren't enough skilled labourers.

We've gone from being the workshop of the world to a country that's sustained by the service industries and the financial sector – professor Christina Beatty

But some of my peers are put off by the "overtly capitalist" nature of a factory job and just genuinely prefer working in other areas. Rather than manufacturing, they see their future job prospects in business, or entrepreneurship – which often have neater ties to the service industry. Goldsmiths graduate Molly Beaumont, 23, works in a restaurant and says that she hoped to open her own business one day.

"After finishing my degree I decided I did want to pursue a career in hospitality. Most people I know are working as waiting staff to pay the rent while working towards other careers, which is totally understandable," she says. "I think it's sad though that being a chef is considered a career choice while being front-of-house isn't in the same way. In other countries it's a well-respected career."

As the waiters march on, it seems there are two important things the government should be doing. Yes, investing in manufacturing is important, but they should also be tackling the travesty that sees so many people in hospitality on unstable, zero-hour contracts that make them vulnerable to exploitation. You've got to be healthy enough to join that march in the first place, after all.

@charliebcuff

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