ILPC 2020, 15th and 17th April Newcastle

ILPC 2020 Streams

Younger and older workers in the contemporary labour market: theorising similarities and differences

Stream Organisers

  • Melanie Simms, University of Glasgow, UK
  • David Lain, University of Newcastle, UK
  • Kathleen Riach, University of Glasgow, UK and Monash University, Australia

This stream focuses on exploring the specific challenges encountered by younger and older workers in the contemporary labour market, and responses of other labour market actors and regulators. Standing (2011) argued both cohorts are key elements of ‘the precariat’ and the stream critically engages with these debates, exploring the experiences of both groups as separate entities and in their relationship with each other.

In many countries affected by the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-9, young workers have suffered particularly harshly and are likely to be affected by long-term changes in labour markets, work and employment (Dolphin 2014). Similarly, those aged 45 and over have continued to be targeted during times of economic recession and insecurity (MacNicol, 2015; Léime, and Street, 2018). But even prior to the crisis, debates raged about the extent to which we are experiencing particular combinations of pressures that make young workers’ transitions into the labour market harder, longer and more precarious (Russell and O’Connell, 2001; Bradley and Devadason, 2008). Concerns likewise existed that older people, and particularly job seekers, were being disproportionately confined to low paid, low skill jobs with fewer career opportunities (Taylor and Walker, 1994), often working alongside the young (Lain, 2012).

Attention has since been drawn to changing labour market circumstances, including increased precarity in employment for those at both ends of the life course (Armano et al, 2017; Hipp et al, 2015). This has included the impact of gig work (Wood et al 2018; Secunda, 2017) and other forms of vulnerable employment such as ‘McJobs’ (Lindsay and McQuaid, 2004), a shift of attention towards issues of ‘employability’ (Fleischmann et al., 2015) and critiques of those narratives and practices surrounding neoliberalisation (Vera-Sano et al., 2018).

Trade union responses to these changing contexts have received academic and practitioner attention (Simms et al, 2018; Hodder and Kretsos, 2015) but, most young workers remain un-represented despite the majority of evidence suggesting that young workers have little ideological opposition to unions (Cha et al, 2018; Hodder and Vandaele, 2019; Simms et al, 2018). There have been various initiatives implemented by unions and other collective representative organisations to understand these challenges and increasing research has examined young people's attitudes towards unions and initiatives and approaches to the challenges in ensuring young workers’ interests are integrated into institutions of economic democracy (Simms et al 2018).

With regard to older workers, union, employee and employer responses are likely to be influenced by financial pressures for individuals to work longer given pension and welfare state changes. Older workers may feel a sense of ‘ontological precarity’, trapped between precarious employment, a precarious welfare state and precarious households (Lain et al., 2018). Older worker pessimism about prospects in the labour market are likely to be influenced by employer stereotypes, discrimination and a wider marginalisation of the kinds of jobs older people can expect to get (Ainsworth, 2003). In this context, it is an open question when flexible work and self-employment – promoted by policy makers as a means of extending working lives - is a good, and when it reflects labour market disadvantage (Beck 2013; Loretto and Vickerstaff, 2015).

At the same time, there is still considerable disagreement about how we conceptualise these relations both within and between cohorts given current labour market conditions. There is an established critique of the utility of generational cohorts in describing and understanding work and employment (Parry and Urwin 2011, Milkman 2017, Williams 2019). Questions also remain over whether it is age, cohort or something else that is a useful proxy measure for other developments within capitalism and/or labour markets more generally (Grady and Simms 2019). Elsewhere, some have argued that drawing on age or cohorts follows a chronormative determinism that inadvertently reproduces existing power and inequalities (Riach et al., 2014). Others suggest that health inequalities and life expectancy are more tied to socioeconomic position or gender than chronology or cohort and growing insecurity/precarity intersects with class and gender. Such trends may similarly impact both older people and less well-educated young working-class men (Nixon, 2018), suggesting that an intersectional account of age is necessary.

This special stream will therefore bring together researchers with interests in these debates. We are particularly keen to secure contributions that develop theoretical as well as empirical insights into these dynamics. We would especially welcome contributions beyond the global north.  Examples of the kinds of research areas we are interested in include, but are not limited to the following:

  • What are the structural, organizational or cultural conditions which mean young workers may experience difficult transitions into the labour market? And to what extent are older workers likely to experience difficult transitions out of the labour market?
  • How can we conceptualise and theorise the experiences of younger and older workers in the labour market? Are new theoretical approaches needed?
  • To what extent do theoretical lenses and the conceptual language used to research younger workers advance our understanding of older workers and vice versa?
  • In what way do key age-related events and themes (such as property ownership, retirement saving and pensions) intersect with experiences of the labour market for different age cohorts?
  • How might we understand (empirically and/or conceptually) relations between different age cohorts beyond ideas of tension or stereotypes?
  • How can we understand attempts to collectively organise and represent different groups of young and older workers? Are there trade-offs in terms of the interests of each cohort? What challenges do representational organisations such as trade unions face organising and representing these groups?
  • Under what conditions can 'non-standard' employment (including flexible and part-time work as well as self-employment) lead to more positive and/or negative experiences and outcomes for both younger and older workers?
  • How can we understand employers’ behaviour with regards to employing and managing older and younger workers? How can we conceptualise their decisions and consequences?


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Grady, J. and Simms, M. (2019) Trade unions and the challenge of fostering solidarities in an era of financialisation. Economic and Industrial Democracy 40(3): 490–510. 

Hipp, L., Bernhardt, J., & Allmendinger, J. (2015). Institutions and the prevalence of nonstandard employment. Socio-Economic Review13(2), 351-377.

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