UK job market in decline – new data shows 500,000 additional workers in insecure employment in 2023

An image of a young black woman wearing an apron and working behind the counter of a coffee shop or grocery store © Adobe images

More than half a million additional people moved into severely insecure work in the UK last year, meaning they face low pay, unpredictable hours and are vulnerable to job losses due to a lack of rights and protections.

New data from the Work Foundation at Lancaster University reveals that 6.8 million people – 21.4% of the active labour market – working in the UK in 2023 were in this type of highly unstable employment.

Researchers say severely insecure work heightens workers’ financial vulnerability, leaving them on average more than £3k per year worse off than those in secure jobs. They also highlight that it risks undermining the Government’s flagship ‘Back to Work’ scheme which aims to reduce the record numbers of people opting out of the labour market due to ill health.

The leading think-tank’s UK Insecure Work Index details the prevalence of insecurity felt by workers in the UK, with a particular focus on employment contracts, personal finances and access to employment protections and rights.

Its latest analysis shows that the number of people in severely insecure work has risen by 500,000 in the UK since Spring 2022, at the same time as secure employment has declined, with 560,000 fewer workers in secure jobs over the same period.*

The data also suggests falling into insecure employment is a far bigger risk to some worker groups:

  • The majority of those who moved into severely insecure work in 2023 were women (60%). Women are now 2.3 times more likely to experience severely insecure work than men
  • A record 1.45 million disabled workers are now in severely insecure work. This has been driven by the increase in the number of disabled people of working age and the growing numbers of disabled people in employment. However, given both demographic changes and policy priorities, it is likely this number will continue to rise
  • More Indian, Black African and Black Caribbean workers fell into severely insecure work than white British workers and other ethnic minorities in 2023
  • Workers aged 18-24 are now twice as likely than older workers aged 50-65 to be in severely insecure work. The rate of insecure work has risen more steeply among young workers which, together with a rise in youth unemployment, suggests a challenging jobs market for young people
  • Spikes in insecure work have mostly been seen in the wholesale and retail sectors, along with the professional and scientific sectors, and hospitality.

“People in severely insecure work not only face the stress of unpredictable hours and lack fundamental employment protections, they also risk being stuck in low pay – and are therefore particularly vulnerable to persistently high inflation”, explains Ben Harrison, Director of the Work Foundation.

“Our research suggests many end up in insecure work because they’re forced to trade security for flexibility in order to manage childcare, long-term health conditions or other commitments.”

The Work Foundation also highlights the Government’s ‘Back to Work’ agenda and the spectre of ever tougher welfare sanctions as factors that could contribute to a further rise in workers in severely insecure jobs in the year ahead.

“A record 2.8 million people are economically inactive due to long-term health conditions,” Ben Harrison continues. “While additional support from Government to help more of these people who want to work into jobs is welcome, simultaneously increasing the threat of welfare sanctions to push them into ‘any job’ is likely to be counter-productive.

“Insecure jobs can exacerbate underlying health conditions, force people to bounce in and out of employment and lead to a continuing reliance on Universal Credit. We urgently need a stronger focus on improving access to good quality jobs that will allow more people to sustain employment over the long term.”

The Work Foundation says a new approach is needed to improve living standards and increase and sustain labour market participation. In its report, published today, it calls on the Government to:

  • Bring forward a comprehensive Employment Bill that seeks to substantially reduce insecure work in the UK
  • Implement an immediate pause to any further tightening of welfare sanctions until the potential impacts of the current Back to Work intervention are understood; and an Independent Review is undertaken which establishes the role that job quality plays in people’s ability to enter the labour market and stay in work 

You can find out more about the Insecurity Index and read the report in full on the Work Foundation's website.

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