Navigating into career control

“Take back control” became a central theme of 2016 campaigns. The aftermath of both the EU referendum and the Trump victory in the US has seen a wealth of commentary on why this message resonated so strongly. The focus has tended to be on areas that have been ‘left behind’ by globalization. The impact of changes in the labour market – and specifically job losses in traditional employment – has featured strongly. However, the responses proffered by both campaigns are based on job structures and skills systems that are increasing irrelevant and exacerbate the sense of loss of control.


Whether the focus is on stagnant or falling wages, rising prices, use of zero, short-term or temporary contracts, self-employment, the impact of automation, retailers’ warehouses, tax credit cuts or universal credit work incentives – work has barely been out of the news in recent years. It is notable that despite this, policy solutions to an increasing sense of insecurity have remained out of focus. Indeed, the chasm between the systems set up to prepare people for work and support their jobsearch, and the changing labour market, seems to grow ever wider with each policy iteration.


The experience of acquiring skills, searching for employment and then working, along with aspirations for future work, play a critical part in each individual’s life and identity. Indeed, it is inextricably linked with physical, mental and economic wellbeing, as well as family and community life. The last decade has seen significant changes both in the ways that people work, and in access to the systems set up to provide support, such as social security, skills training and childcare.


Research undertaken with employers for Britain Works, a partnership between Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Working Families to evaluate and rethink the current model, highlights the need for change in working practices. Working parents struggle to meet all the conflicting demands on their time. Calls to both organisations’ helplines underline the lack of understanding of employment rights, in an increasingly transactional work environment. The consequence is a feeling of lack of control, which as Professor Marmot ’s work shows is key to stress and chronic ill health.


The 2016 British Social Attitudes survey showed that levels of perceived autonomy at work have risen over the last decade, but only for those in managerial jobs. People in semi-routine and routine occupations (and therefore more likely to be low paid) have experienced an increase in employer control.


Work is, and has been for some time, the anti-poverty policy in the UK. However, the quality of that work – for so long overlooked and unmeasured, is instrumental to ensuring that work does enable people to move out of poverty. Over 1 in 5 of people in employment in the UK are in low paid work. Households in poverty are very likely to have at least one person in work living in them. These low paid jobs are the ones where a sense of control is most absent. Australian research shows that poor-quality work is more detrimental to mental health than unemployment.


Education and vocational skills systems do not reflect the reality of a more fragile, transient working life, where flexibility and insecurity are increasingly interwoven. Traditional progression frameworks have least to offer in low paid sectors, whose very structures offer few options to move upwards.


Britain Works provides a framework for thinking differently about how to promote control over working lives, and enabling progression from poverty at the low paid end of the labour market.


Resolution Foundation research shows that one of the reasons millennials are now earning less than previous generations is their lack of job mobility. The best way to earn more is to move jobs. People on low wages are more likely to move jobs when there is a strong safety net. They have to have the confidence that if they take the risk the support structures will be there. Changes in the labour market, in social security and in adult skills herald a shift in risk, away from employers and the government, and towards low-paid workers. This risk imbalance represents an impediment to job movement – and the benefits that can entail.


Effective navigation of the labour market – to build skills, experience and knowledge requires a rethink in the way we discuss jobs and careers. This means talking explicitly about using (rather than just taking) jobs. It means knowing how to move between jobs in order to accrue the benefit, and understanding that each job’s value is in part derived from how it can be used to access other, better-paid jobs.


Navigation, rather than traditional career progression is a 21st century life-skill. It suggests a shift in service design that policy makers must consider as they rethink the future of Jobcentre Plus and redesign our apprenticeship system. It demands thinking differently about control over our working lives, and building a coalition of workers, employers and policy-makers able to design and deliver a better system.

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