Job insecurity is not a necessary trade-off to job flexibility


In the Autumn of 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May commissioned Matthew Taylor to undertake a review to consider how employment practices need to change in order to keep pace with modern business models. One of the central aims of the review was to consider the extent that emerging business practices put pressure on the ‘trade-off between flexible labour and benefits such as higher pay or greater work availability, so that workers lose out on all aspects’.

Disappointingly however in addressing the question of whether demand for flexible labour puts pressure on job quality the Taylor Review titled ‘Good work: The Taylor review of modern working practices’ succumbs to the myth that job security must be compromised in order to achieve flexible employment. Indeed, the Taylor Review presents as inevitable that in return for flexibility workers should expect to trade-off on different aspects of job quality including security. Specifically, Taylor states that ‘in return for greater job security individuals may decide to reduce their flexibility. Likewise, those opting for maximum flexibility may find that pay suffers as a result with fewer opportunities for further development through training.’

However, it is not at all clear why these trade-offs to job quality are inevitable. Why should flexibility come at the cost of job security? Or pay? Or training and development? Or any aspect of job quality? Why - if as is claimed both employers and workers increasingly want flexible employment practices - must it come at the cost of job security?

The Taylor Review does not provide answers to these questions; and crucially what the Taylor Review gets wrong is that job security is a necessary trade-off to obtaining job flexibility. Of course, flexible employment can take many forms with common types of flexible employment include part-time work, flexi-time, annualised hours, compressed hours, and job-sharing. But it doesn’t follow that these forms of employment are or should be necessarily insecure as the Taylor Review seems to suggest.

Job flexibility is about working patterns that suit the needs of workers and employers alike. The key cited benefits for workers is that job flexibility allows workers to better balance work and personal commitments. For employers, the key cited benefit is that by utilising flexible employment practices fluctuations in supply and demand are handled more efficiently.

Job insecurity is about not having security, certainty or predictability in terms of either how long one’s employment is going to continue or the hours one is going to be expected or expect to work on a day-to-day, or week-to-week, or month-to-month basis. While flexible employment has been shown to bring positive benefits job insecurity has been shown to have negative effects on the health and well-being outcomes of workers, negative effects for employers in terms of the commitment of workers, innovation, and productivity, and by consequence negative effects on the overall economy and society.

It is clear to see why the effects of job flexibility and job insecurity on the outcomes of workers are at odds with each other. An example might better show why this is the case. Take for example a working mother or working father who might benefit from the flexibility which a secure and certain part-time job might offer. The benefits might include being better able to manage and organise work and care commitments. If you take away the security or certainty of if or when the job is going to end or if and when the worker is going to be expected to work it is easy to see the conflict. How can they plan their family life? How can they plan for childcare? How can they ensure that they will have the resources to make ends meet next week or next month? How can they make plans about their social lives? They simply cannot, as they do not have security or certainty which would allow them to make any of these plans.

The Taylor Review recognised the importance of decent work as that which benefits employees through good rewards, security of employment, predictability in terms of working hours, training and development, trade union presence, good communication and ways of working that support task discretion, which in turn has positive benefits for employers. However, all in all, it remains overly timid and avoids the difficult questions. It avoids addressing questions such as if employers were required to provide a guaranteed number of hours, what impact would that have on workers and employers? These questions have received insufficient attention and should have been the questions addressed in the Taylor Review. Given that they weren’t it is not an overstatement to say that the Taylor Review does not speak to its own central aims, and in the end, provides no guidance to Government on how it might go about making flexible labour decent, secure work.

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Dr Lisa Wilson

Lisa Wilson is a Senior Economist at the Nevin Economic Research Institute and is based in the Belfast office. Her main research interests lie in the areas of labour markets, income distribution, poverty, public expenditure, living standards and well-being. 

Since taking up her position in the NERI Lisa has been among other things carrying out work concerned with job quality and its economic and social importance, the future of work, the gendered nature of employment, and housing and its impact for living standards in Northern Ireland.

Lisa is a native of Donegal, and a graduate of Ulster University and Queens University, Belfast. Lisa completed her PhD in Queen’s University, Belfast focusing on income inequality and well-being.

Contact: [email protected] or 00 44 28 9024 6214.