Are today’s labour markets characterised by subjective job insecurity?

Insecure working conditions are increasingly prevalent in today’s labour markets. Many workers face the risk of their jobs being replaced by machines, as scientific progress has led to the development of technologies that are capable of carrying out many of the tasks that were previously reserved for humans. In the medium term, this development will mostly affect those in routine, manual jobs, yet as technological capabilities improve, more and more jobs could be affected, including in professional occupations. At the same time, new and less stable forms of work, such as zero-hours contracts and jobs in the gig economy, are becoming more common. These employment arrangements affect a range of workers, including couriers, care workers and freelancers in the creative industries.

Reducing the level of subjective job insecurity therefore an important target for policymakers as fear of job loss affects people’s decision-making and behaviour. Workers are more likely to reduce their consumption and delay important decisions in their family life, such as getting married or having children. Higher job insecurity is also associated with lower work motivation and commitment, as well as decreases in physical and mental health due to the stress it causes workers.

Figure 1: There has been no clear trend in subjective job insecurity in Britain since the 1980s Source: British Skills and Employment Survey

Given these developments, we might think that workers today feel more insecure in their jobs than they did in previous decades. However, our research found that this is not the case. Figure 1 shows patterns in subjective job insecurity in Britain since 1986. As we can see, there is no clear trend in job insecurity in Britain since the 1980s. Rather than structural changes in labour markets, levels of job insecurity appear to follow trends in the economic climate, such as the employment rate. For instance, we observe a dip in subjective job insecurity during the recession in 2012 compared to the more stable economic climate in the early 2000s.

Figure 2: Temporary and self-employed workers experience higher job insecurity, while part-time workers do not in Britain in 2012
Source: British Skills and Employment Survey

In contrast, the nature of different types of employment is associated with job insecurity in some ways. Figure 2 shows substantial variation in subjective job insecurity for workers in different types of employment relationships. Temporary workers experience much higher fear of job loss compared to permanent workers, and to an extent, so do self-employed workers. In contrast and perhaps surprisingly, part-time workers do not appear to be more fearful of losing their jobs. This may reflect the fact that, compared to part-time employment, temporary work and self-employment are especially insecure jobs in which workers may be exposed to precarious working conditions.

In contrast to differences in job insecurity by type of contract, Figure 3 shows that levels of job insecurity do not differ systematically by social class. Intuitively, we might expect individuals in lower social classes to perceive their jobs as more insecure. The absence of such a class gradient may illustrate the fact that increasingly, it is not only workers in lower social classes that are exposed to insecurity in their work environment, but professional workers, too.

Figure 3: There are mixed patterns in subjective job insecurity by social class in Britain in 2012
Source: British Skills and Employment Survey

As we can see, patterns of job insecurity often differ from what we might expect intuitively. While contract type appears to be a determinant of job insecurity, fear of job loss is not limited to certain groups, but rather reaches across social classes. Encouragingly, however, despite fundamental transformations in the labour market, subjective job insecurity is not increasing over time.


You can read more in our new briefing note, CSI 33: Subjective Job Insecurity, by Leonie Westhoff of Nuffield College