POLICY AND POLITICS: A pathway to precarity? Youth employment and the struggling social care sector

POLICY AND POLITICS: A pathway to precarity? Youth employment and the struggling social care sector

Tom Montgomery, Micaela Mazzei , Simone Baglioni and Stephen Sinclair


The Policy and Politics section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal Policy & Politics. The section is curated by Sarah Brown. 


In an effort to solve crucial issues such as youth unemployment, policymakers can find it tempting when it looks like there is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. When you have a population living longer and requiring personal care for many years to come it can seem logical that there is a future in that sector for a new generation of young workers. However, there is a risk that the prospect of potential employment for young people eclipses an awareness of the quality of work available in that sector.

Our recent research, published in Policy & Politics, explores the actual potential of the social care sector in the UK to offer good quality career pathways for young people. It finds an environment shaped by a contradiction – that the sector is forecasting growing demand for care services well into the next decade whilst simultaneously warning about the impact of spending cuts. As one care provider told us:

‘The irony is that despite the ageing population, growing needs for social care and the potential that the personalisation agenda can offer, the sector is struggling’.

Although our research was carried out in Scotland, concerns regarding the future funding of social care have been echoed across the UK. For example, the Local Government Association, which represents local authorities across England and Wales, have estimated that there could be a £2.6 billion funding gap for social care by 2020. Understandably, the focus regarding the implications of these funding issues has been placed on the impact upon those older people who rely upon social care for their most basic needs. However, meeting these needs properly, with good quality care that offers dignity and respect, is inextricably linked to the workforce providing that care. Therefore, one of the questions guiding our research has been: what type of labour market environment does the current funding situation produce?

In short, a precarious one marked by poor pay, zero-hour contracts and limited opportunities for career progression. If that was not already a tough gig to sell to young people, there is the crucial issue of the nature of care work itself, a role which comes with a great deal of responsibility and often involving the provision of intimate tasks for older people with complex health needs and long term conditions. The young people we spoke to during the course of our research were under no illusions about the pay and working conditions that the sector may offer, but more fundamentally described the tasks involved in social care work to be a significant barrier, indicating that they viewed the work involved as requiring a particular disposition. The sector representatives whom we interviewed agreed, emphasising ‘life skills’ and empathy more than qualifications and adding that there was a tendency in the sector to employ more mature staff whom their elderly service users themselves preferred.

Moreover, the Scottish context has been undergoing a transition of health and social care integration which is premised on moving the delivery of services away from a clinical or residential setting to one that is based in the community, with more elderly people being offered support to continue to live in their own homes. Amidst these changes, Audit Scotland, an independent body which scrutinises public spending, has highlighted the crucial need for a long term workforce strategy to ensure the success of these new governance arrangements. This process is now being taken forward by the Scottish Government, with a consultation launched on 1st February this year which emphasises that ‘a more strategic approach is needed to encourage younger people to make positive choices about careers in health and social care’.

Our findings suggest that this will prove challenging on various fronts: not only in ensuring that the workforce plan is fit for purpose in terms of meeting growing demand, but also convincing those young people who do have a vocation to be carers that the sector offers them the type of secure, well paid working conditions that we should want for those looking after some of the most vulnerable members of society. Furthermore, policymakers are confronted with the additional challenge of convincing service providers and service users of the role that young people can play in a sector that values life experience over credentials and which has moved towards delivery models that offer increasing degrees of choice and person-centred support.

Our study began with the purpose of investigating the possibilities for young people to pursue sustainable employment in social care and, instead, found a potential pathway to precarity for young people in a sector experiencing growing demand and financial strain. It is, therefore, difficult at this point to comprehend how even the most glittering of public relations campaigns could successfully recast the image of the social care sector as one which is a positive choice for young people who are hoping to build a career. On the contrary, during the course of our research, it became clear that unless future workforce strategies are designed and executed with the aim of developing well-paid and secure employment, social care is likely to continue to be seen by many as the employment of last resort. Moreover, should social care continue to offer a pathway to precarity in the labour market then it is also possible that this may exacerbate existing income inequalities such as the gender pay gap given the high representation of women in the care workforce.

Overall our experience of conducting research into these issues has revealed the complex and sometimes competing pressures which are shaping the social care sector. Although our findings can offer no easy answers, our conversations with service providers, sector representatives and young people suggest that a crucial starting point for policymakers is that values of dignity and respect should not only be central to the care provided to older people but should also be central to the employment conditions offered to care providers. Our ambition throughout our research has been that the issues we have raised resonate across party politics and levels of governance, because the decisions that are taken now to shape this increasingly vital workforce will inevitably shape the quality of care that many of us will receive in the years to come.


Tom Montgomery is a researcher in the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University; Micaela Mazzei is a Research Fellow in the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University; Simone Baglioni is Professor of Politics in the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University; Stephen Sinclair is Professor of Social Policy in the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Image: Bournemouth Borough Council, CC BY-NC 2.0.