‘It’s not like that anymore’: young men searching for work in the service economy

‘It’s not like that anymore’: young men searching for work in the service economy

Linda McDowell

Twenty years ago, when my son was a teenager, working in the sort of casual jobs typically filled by school students, he challenged my long-standing belief in female disadvantage. In my generation, he insisted, it is young men, not young women, who are disadvantaged, especially when looking for work. His argument chimed with a growing body of research and policy initiatives responding to what some identified as a ‘crisis of masculinity’. The achievements of young women in state schools in the UK, for example, began to surpass those of young men as the success of girls in school-leaving exams grew, although a noticeable bias in subject choice remained. Rates of mental illness and suicide among men rose, and problems of homelessness, violence and substance abuse became noticeable, exacerbated by the programme of cuts in services, benefits and other forms of youth support after the economic crisis of 2008.

One of the most significant changes, however, that has recut the connections between gender, social class, opportunities and life chances has been the long-term decline of stable employment for working class young men. For the ‘millennials’ – young people born between 1981 and 1996 – and Generation Z born after 1997, especially for those from working class families, working lives are noticeably different from those of their mothers and fathers, and even more so than their grandparents. For young women, the rise of service sector employment increased the number and type of jobs that mapped onto stereotypical characteristics of femininity. Clerical work, retail employment, jobs caring for the public in different ways whether in jobs that demanded educational qualifications such as nursing and teaching, or those depending on attributes regarded as ‘naturally feminine’ such as empathy, love and patience offered opportunities for women’s participation in the labour force. These jobs are often regarded by employers and by young men alike as unsuitable for working-class boys leaving school. Young men are seen as too noisy, not reliable, unable to provide the deferential ‘service with a smile’ important in customer-facing jobs. These stereotypes are exacerbated for young men of colour by racist assumptions about their unsuitability.

Over the past two decades, I have been talking to young men aged between 16 and 21 in English towns and cities, including Sheffield, Cambridge, Luton, Swindon, Hastings and other coastal towns to explore the effects of this coincidence of labour market change, the relative disadvantage of young men with limited skills, and, more recently, the impact of the austerity measures implemented by Governments since 2010. Through the personal experiences of three young men, two white and one of them a British South Asian, I show how the prospects of finding work that supports an independent life have become even harder for many young men. Young working-class men cycle in and out of short-term, precarious jobs and periods of unemployment, increasingly unable to secure permanent work and the other correlates of a desirable adulthood – a decent place to live and satisfactory social relationships.

In 2001, in Sheffield, I met Richard (1) outside a branch of McDonalds, where he had been working shifts. He had had a mixed school career, marked by periods of exclusion, sometimes he felt unfairly. ‘it’s not always me, I don’t always start it [trouble] but I always get the blame’. On leaving school at 16, he looked first for a retail job.

I was hoping for retail . . . I had quite a lot of interviews. Madhouse, they sell clothes, like designer clothes, but they said ‘we can’t take you on’ [now] . . .

He found work instead at Sports Soccer, a down-market store and then moved to Burtons, a menswear chain that he left almost immediately as the atmosphere was ‘too stuffy’, moving to McDonalds. He found jobs by scanning adverts on boards in the shopping centre and used no other forms of search. He was largely positive about McDonalds: ‘I’ve only been there seven months and I’m training already’. However, when I spoke to him again six months later he was fed up: ‘I’m looking for other good jobs out there. . . . I don’t want to waste my life staying in one place’. Six months later again, the monotony and sheer hard work of McDonalds had ground him down and he had arranged an interview in TopMan (a men’s clothing retailer) for the following Saturday: ‘Maybe it’s better work; it’s cleaner and not as hard in a shop’.

What was noticeable when I talked to young men in Luton in 2010 was the hardening of the job market. The effects of the 2008 economic crisis and the start of the programme of cuts in financial support and services for young people implemented by the newly-elected Coalition Government in the UK had begun to be felt. The country was also a more unpleasant one for young men growing up in minority communities as racism was evident through, for example, marches organised by fascist organisations such as the English Defence League. Searching for work for non-white young men in this climate was difficult.  30% of Luton’s population was from a minority community (the UK average was 12.7% in 2011), and the opportunities in the car-industry that had attracted post-colonial migrants in the 1970s had almost disappeared for their sons and grandsons.  Debates about Islam, terrorism, extremism and political indoctrination were high on the national agenda, as well as wider anxieties about minority youth and their propensity to be involved in urban unrest and street violence. Mo, aged 18, whose grandparents moved from Pakistan to Luton in the mid-1970s, explained how finding a job in this climate was a dispiriting experience.

I’ve applied online to numerous amounts of shops in town and they said they’ll get back to me but …

He shrugged and explained that he then looked for something different and hoped that personal contacts would help.

[I am looking for] something practical, like I wouldn’t mind working in a warehouse. . . .  I like to be physical, I don’t like sitting in one spot so anything really like that. I’m looking for jobs right now and hopefully will find one. My friend works in a warehouse and he said he’ll try and get me in so I need to call him up.  And that’s it, I’m just trying to get in with my friend right now, trying to get into that warehouse he’s working in.

Other young men, both white and minority men, told me that shop work was hard to find -‘jobs for girls’ one man said – and so they looked for work that seemed more suitably ‘masculine’ like the warehouse job Mo was hoping for.

By 2017 when I started looking at the problems for young men growing up in English coastal towns, the economic climate had changed again, with a significant shift in the nature of low-paid employment, as well as in the personal attributes and the material possessions demanded for successful entry. Overall rates of youth unemployment had fallen since 2014, but under-employment was more significant. New forms of contracts and reduced hours of work resulted in growing numbers of insecure or precarious part-time jobs, as well as more self-employment, requiring personal and financial resources for success.

One of the most notable changes has been the expansion of the platform or gig economy – driving cars (for Uber, for example) and vans (Hermes or DPD), delivering parcels and official documents (numerous cycle courier firms) as well as food to eat at home (Deliveroo). What is significant about this type of work is its dominance by (often young) men, in which some of the stereotypical virtues of embodied masculinity – speed, endurance, risk taking and geographical orientation skills – are highly valued. When in work, employed through a high-tech platform, a smartphone is a basic requirement, as is a bicycle, motorcycle or car and typically workers have to bear the start-up costs of the uniform and other essential equipment. In this new form of employment, the embodied version of masculinity that previously disadvantaged young men may now confer advantage. However, it also constructs a new divide between young working class men, based on their differential ability to acquire the skills demanded in the gig economy. The less confident and poorest among them remain excluded.

The men in Hastings lived on the edge in a real way. Many were without regular jobs, often working cash in hand for a brother or uncle, as a labourer or clearing out empty properties, for example, and few had secured work in the formal economy. Opportunities were limited out of season and competition for summer jobs was intense, with students and young women having more success than the men to whom I talked. Here is Dylan talking about his search for work.

I’ve applied for all them seasonal jobs but hundreds apply. I’ve applied for most of the supermarkets down here and post offices, that kind of thing.

Echoing Mo in Luton seven years earlier, he noted, ‘work in shops goes to girls. I’ve texted Asda, Morrisons and Tesco looking for night shifts but no luck’.

While the structural circumstances facing school leavers without qualifications have hardly altered over the last two decades and popular media and political/policy stereotypes of young men as idlers or lacking moral fibre have proved consistent, life has got harder for the young men I talked to between 2017 and 2019. Jobs are more difficult to find and often short-term. Inequality and poverty have deepened in the country as a whole, not only as precarious employment is more common but also as a consequence of austerity. The young men in Hastings, for example, were less likely to receive family support and more likely to be homeless or sofa surfing than the previous two cohorts. Britain has become an increasingly unequal society since 2010: a fifth of the population now live in poverty, including growing numbers of children.

The men in Hastings, born in the new millennium, are now part of what has been termed ‘the precarious generation’ whose expectations of permanent work differ from previous generations’ hopes, where a stable working life, at least for the majority of working class men, was not out of reach. The final words are Dylan’s: ‘what my dad doesn’t understand is it’s not like how it was back in his day where he says that he could just walk into a place “you’ve got a job, mate, yeah, here you go”. It’s not like that anymore’.


Notes and Further reading
(1) All participants’ names have been anonymised.
Bloodworth, J (2018) Hired: six months undercover in low-wage BritainAtlantic Books London is an excellent study of the personal consequences of the rise of precarious and poorly paid work.
Day, J (2916) Cyclogeography: journeys of a London bicycle courierLondon: Notting Hill Editions is a short punchy text about the view of London from the saddle of a bike as well as an exploration of the bicycle in the cultural imagination.
McDowell, L (2003) Redundant Masculinity? Blackwell, Oxford is a comparison of young men’s search for work in Cambridge and Sheffield

Demographic data
www.indexmundi.com/united_kingdom/demographic_profile.html is a useful source of figures about the UK population including its ethnic composition


Linda McDowell is now Professor Emerita of Human Geography at Oxford University after many years teaching geography at various UK universities. She is currently a research fellow at St John’s College Oxford where she is writing about life in coastal towns. Her most recent book is Migrant Women’s Voices published by Bloomsbury in 2016.

Image: Pixabay


The articles in this special issue of Discover Society were written and are based on research conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak, and thus do not engage with the new lived realities of urban youth in a global pandemic. Yet we hope and believe that the discussions presented here will continue to be relevant in rethinking urban futures in the years to come.