I don’t like generalisations about generations. But one thing about young people at work today is a fact. They are not joining trade unions.
The latest available figures suggest that less than 10% of trade union members are aged between 16-24.
Why is this? The truth is we really don’t know. There is of course high unemployment within this age group. Some of them are still studying. But as far as I can ascertain, no one has really researched the question. One union did look a few years ago at why younger workers weren’t engaging with lay or formal roles within unions, but this is just researching the views of those who are already within the organisation.
Trade Union membership has been on a downward trend since the 1980s. Around 6.5m members in the UK today, down from the heady days of 13m in the late 1970s. The reasons for this decline are complex and interconnected. There are the obvious factors; the decline in the traditional industries in which trade unions flourished like coal, steel, manufacturing. There is the impact of legislation that has reduced trade union power. Even us HR people have a role to play. Hard to imagine now that 30 years ago there were many organisations in which you would never speak to your employee directly. You would never conceive of such a thing as Internal Communications. You talked to a union. And they talked to the workers. Now we have this fancy thing called Human Resource Management instead.
Back to young people for a moment. If you are a teenager today, entering the workforce, what is in it for you to join a trade union? If you join a business where there isn’t a union, if it’s not part of your family history, if you don’t feel you need any protection, your company isn’t doing collective bargaining, and crucially a trade union is not reaching out to you and making a case for membership, then exactly what is going to encourage you to pay your dues? In your eyes? I actually explained the concept of a trade union to a young teenager recently. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. He just didn’t get it.
Jon Bartlett published an interesting blog post recently. He was reflecting on an article that suggested social media networks are the trade unions of the future. Well it is true your network can help you find a voice. It can help you find like-minded people. It can help you find support when you need it. The network of both contacts and friends that I have through social media has been invaluable to me. But it ain’t going to pitch up and sit beside you during a grievance hearing. Nor is it going to fight for your rights, if you need it.
36% of trade union members are now over 50. So add these trends together and it makes a difficult picture for the future of unions, unless they begin to act – fast.
I have been involved in programmes about the future of work. There are many interesting reports written about it, notably the recent report from UKCES. But here’s the thing. There is plenty written about the future of work. Globalisation, technology, flexibility…. But trade unions feature nowhere in this debate right now.
Is the age of collectivism passing? And could it be that somehow, social media is its replacement?
As much as I am an advocate of all things social, I’m not convinced. And I am not sure I want it to be, either.