One in four UK jobs are “bad jobs” or “poor quality employment”

As we approach a general election, none of the major parties are considering the broader implications of poor quality employment.
- Professor Kirsten Sehnbruch
Fast food delivery. Rowan Freeman on Unsplash

Up to one in four jobs could be deemed as “bad jobs or “poor-quality employment”, according to new research by Kirsten Sehnbruch, British Academy Global Professor at the International Inequalities Institute.

At an LSE public lecture, Professor Sehnbruch will argue that it is not enough to focus on traditional measures of labour market performance - such as unemployment rates and wage growth - in today’s rapidly changing economy.

She will urge policymakers to look also at the types of jobs being created, with those of poor quality carrying wider implications for families, the economy, productivity and the sustainability of our welfare state/social contract. It is therefore urgent that the government measures how many workers in the UK are in poor-quality employment. 

Professor Sehnbruch’s findings include:

  • 1 in 4 jobs could be deemed a “bad job”
  • 30 per cent of women in the UK have a so-called “bad job”, compared with 23 per cent of men
  • 12 per cent of unionised workers are in poor-quality employment whereas 30 per cent of non-unionised workers are
  • If you are in a good job, you will likely stay in a good job. Workers with “bad jobs” are likely to get stuck in poor-quality employment
  • The gig economy has expanded significantly. Migrants make up a large proportion of those working within the gig economy and they are more likely to work long hours

Professor Sehnbruch argues for an urgent rethink of how we view the labour market and makes several recommendations, including: improving data collection and measuring poor-quality employment; establishing social dialogue mechanisms to discuss employment policy and regulation; and considering the broader policy implications of poor-quality employment in the context of the UK’s socioeconomic development, its levelling up agenda and the sustainability of our welfare state.

Professor Sehnbruch said: “Labour markets are the foundation of our economy, society and welfare states. Yet as we approach a general election, and off the back of party conferences, none of the major parties are considering the broader implications of poor-quality employment. Those in power must take action to improve the quality of the UK’s jobs, starting with measuring how many workers in the UK are in poor-quality employment.

“We only need to look at the labour markets of countries that are less developed than the UK to know how poor-quality employment can undermine the social contract.”

A “bad job” is defined as a worker who is deprived in one or more key aspects of their employment conditions: low earnings, unstable employment (e.g. zero-hours, temporary or agency contracts), or other poor employment conditions such as working too many or too few hours. All of these issues affect the physical and mental health of workers as well as the wellbeing of their families.

Professor Sehnbruch argues for a greater focus on the most vulnerable workers, who are more likely to experience multiple disadvantages in the labour market, which likely exacerbate each other: for example, a low-wage worker is also more likely to have an unstable or unpredictable contract, or may have to work in multiple jobs.

There is no current measure of which workers are the most deprived in the UK, beyond a focus on low wages. Rapid developments in the labour market, such as the emergence of the gig economy and new technologies, are not tracked in terms of how governments generate data and appropriate measures.