“You can’t change anything” — but we’re going to try anyway

Antonia Bance
6 min readMar 28, 2017


Yesterday, Lindsay’s boss asked her to work a double shift — again. Her tutor rang to find out why she’d missed her NVQ class — again. And a client, let down by the agency and left unwashed and hungry, rang in tears — again.

Sitting in Lindsay’s car, disturbed by the constant texts from her boss guilting her, I felt the pressure and the lack of control of her life. And I felt angry — for the elderly people she’s passionate about, who deserve more than a 15 minute care call, and for Lindsay herself — proud of the job she does but worn down by its demands.

That same afternoon, I also met Paul, in debt, doomed to miss every one of his girlfriend’s antenatal appointments because the rota at the warehouse where he works varies so wildly. And I met Laura, reduced to tears by unreasonable cafe customers, desperate to avoid late pickup fees at the nursery, but forced into unpaid overtime.

Pleading with Lindsay’s boss, chopping vegetables with Laura and picking boxes with Paul was instructive. I felt the pressure to work a double shift and to stay late at the cafe — and bridled at the favoritism when Paul’s warehouse boss singled me out for special treatment while shouting at Paul to move faster.

Lindsay, Paul and Laura aren’t real. They are skillful composites brought to life by actors— but based on the real experiences of 100s of Britain’s young core workers. And I finished the day talking to some real young workers over pizza and beer — once they’d got off their shifts.

What was I doing in a cafe, a warehouse and a car in east London? I was on a dry-run of an immersion afternoon for trade union general secretaries and other senior leaders. Trade union leaders know well the lives of their members — but more than 90% of under-30s working in hospitality, retail and private social care aren’t in unions.

And if we want the union movement to still be here, changing lives for the better in 30 years’ time, we need to bring a new generation of workers into unions. And that means unions have to change.

So I’m going to take union leaders to east London, to meet Laura, Lindsay and Paul, and live their lives for an afternoon. We still have spaces for early May — so if you are a regional secretary, national officer, A/DGS or GS of a TUC union, sign yourself up.

The immersion afternoon for union leaders is part of the TUC’s major programme to revitalise the union offer for Britain’s young core workers.

Two of our colleagues John and Kate get involved in a post-it forest…

For the past 5 months the TUC and our partners Good Innovation have been researching the lives of Britain’s young core workers. We did a huge review of all the stats out there and published it in Living for the Weekend. We asked 41 young workers in a range of low-paid jobs to keep WhatsApp diaries for a couple of weeks. And we did more than 100 face-to-face interviews.

Low pay, unpredictable hours and a stories of bosses treating workers in the same workplace differently really came through. Time and again we heard stories of the laws being ignored — most often when managers made people stay longer without pay or work their breaks. The high street retailer who makes all staff turn up 15 mins early and leave 15 mins after closing for “briefings”, unpaid , every day — we’re onto you.

Lots of our young core workers thirst for progression — but have a hard time getting training and promotion. Working parents struggle — and put up with a lot if their job can be flexible around their family commitments. Everyone is ground down by rude customers and clients, and bosses who make arbitrary decisions. And — most striking of all for trade unionists — most don’t trust their colleagues, and would do anything to avoid an “atmosphere” at work.

That’s just a quick summary, but it’s all written up in I feel like I can’t change anything — our latest report about Britain’s young core workers, published last weekend.

From research to insight to action
We had to find a way to turn all of this info into something actionable to design better unions for Britain’s young core workers. Regardless of age, demographics or sector, Britain’s young core workers posed different challenges for unions depending on how important their current job is to them, and whether they focus on right now or have their eyes on the future.

So that gives us 4 groups of Britain’s young core workers — with 4 different mindsets.

The mindsets…

Desperate mindset — “Dan”
The “desperate” group are in the most precarious jobs. They can’t focus on the future because keeping their wage coming in is the most important thing.

Dan might say:
“Losing my job makes me anxious about speaking out, I’m lucky to have a job there’s plenty of people who don’t and are ready to take your place”
“Who would listen to someone like me if I did raise something?”
“My life is completely out of my control, I have no stability in life, no security. I’m only 26 — is this it? Is it going to get worse?”

Progression mindset — “Paula”
The “progression” group are focused on getting on in life — in the sector they are already working in.

Paula might say:
“I’m really passionate about my work, I love helping people”
“I can see how things could be run better at work but they just don’t listen to me”
“I do just as much work as my boss but get paid way less”

Too comfortable mindset — “Tamara”
Young workers in the “too comfortable” group see their job as a means to an end which fits around other commitments in their lives, like their kids.

Tamara might say:
“I feel lucky I can swap shifts so it seems ungrateful to complain about my pay or holiday pay”
“Unless it gets really bad it’s easy to stay and put up with things, it’s just convenient”
“I don’t really think or speak about work when I’m not there”

Stopgap mindset — “Steve”
Workers like Steve never intended to be doing what they do now — and though they want to get on, it won’t be in their current job or sector.

Steve might say:
“This is just a short-term job, it’s not my career”
“There’s no point in trying to change things, I won’t be here much longer”
“I want to work on things that will benefit me in my future career”

So: what next?
So, now we know far more about Stopgap Steve, Progression Paula, Too comfortable Tamara and Desperate Dan. They could all benefit from the support of a trade union — though Tamara might be harder to reach.

This research — particularly the mindsets — gives us insights into how we should approach young workers and what might appeal to them.

What came through loud and clear in the research is that the current offer of trade unionism is totally alien to these young people. They’re not in a union. They know no-one in a union. There’s no union at their work. The type of moral pressure favoured by union activists (“but trade unions gave you the weekend!”) washes past them. They’re really wary of standing up for themselves — and their workplaces push colleagues into distrust of one another. If pushed, they can just about associate unions with helping with problems at work — but that’s not universal (and in a generation that folk memory will be gone).

So it is urgent to find a flavour of trade unionism that could work for them. But it has to be a path towards collectivism. Collective bargaining is what brings all the benefits of trade unionism — and we have to deliver those benefits for young workers. That’s what it’s all about.

Over the past few weeks we’ve worked through 100s of ideas generated by trade unionists and by young workers themselves — testing them out, taking them to our online panel of young core workers for their opinions, refining them, knocking them down.

Next week we’ll pick a final shortlist of up to three. By June we’ll have thrown up what the digis call a “minimum viable product” — and a handful of real young workers will be using it everyday.

Bloody hell, I hope it works.

As always, if you want to know more, have a brilliant idea, think I’m missing the whole point of trade unionism or think your union could take on board some of these insights, get in touch.