From education to employment

Our flexible labour market is a national success story that the next government must protect

Neil Carberry CEO at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation

British workers reject 9-5 as the way to make a living

More people are rejecting the traditional 9-5 working pattern in favour of greater flexibility* to get ahead in their careers and enjoy a better work-life balance.

Two in five Brits (39%) have done temporary agency work, contracting or freelancing at some point in their careers. That’s up from 36% in 2014, according to new research by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC). Recruitment agencies play an important role. On any given day they place over one million people on temporary assignments. The majority of them (62%) were satisfied with the service they received while 17% were neutral.

Whether it’s to care for family, spend more time on hobbies, gain skills, or set up a business, people want more from their jobs. 28% of temporary agency workers, contractors and freelancers choose this way of working because they want flexible hours. 36% want to get on the job ladder quickly.

Neil Carberry, CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said:

“People are making a positive choice to do flexible work because they want more from their job. For too long, the political debate has treated flexible work as second class, and even locked flexible workers out of some forms of support – like the apprenticeship system. That has to change. We need to celebrate different forms of work that are essential to meeting workers’ needs a critical stages of many people’s lives”

“Our flexible labour market is a national success story that the next government must protect. We need genuine two-way flexibility which benefits both business and workers. In times of uncertainty, businesses need flexibility to meet demand for skills and people are looking for opportunities to work flexibly or balance work with caring needs. Policies designed for the past need to be redesigned, for instance broadening the apprenticeship levy would mean even more people can get training while working flexibly to enhance their careers and reduce skills shortages.

“People who work flexibly through recruitment agencies are protected by employment laws. Millions of people and businesses turn to trusted recruiters every year to get the most out of the many opportunities flexible work has to offer. The REC’s Code of Professional Practice offers both groups additional peace of mind.”

Flexibility delivers career progression across society

Temporary roles can be a stepping stone into permanent positions, and many people use it a way of testing a workplace before committing to working there permanently.

Two thirds (68 per cent) of people who have worked as a flexible worker are now in a permanent role. That’s up by 12% from 2014. The research also found that flexible work is a part of people’s lives in all parts of society. A similar proportion of people in the ABC1 and C2DE social grades have worked as temporary agency workers (28% and 26% respectively).  

This shift in motivations and attitudes to work is also supported by government data**. Since 2016 the number of people choosing flexible work because they didn’t want a permanent job has increased. Meanwhile the proportion opting for flexible work because they couldn’t find a permanent role dropped from one in three (32%) to one in four (25%).

Flexible work is important for women and men, but for different reasons

The gender balance among people who have done temporary agency work is well matched (52% female vs 48% male). However, there is a wider difference among contractors and freelancers where men are the majority (63%).

Flexible work is important for women however who use this way of working for different reasons.  Women are more likely to choose flexible work in order to look after children (13% of women vs just 4% of men) and to work more flexible hours (33% of women vs 24% of men). This highlights the need for policies that support women in the workplace.

Flexible work is important for people at every stage in life

The research found people of different ages are motivated by flexible work for different reasons.

Flexible work is particularly important among younger people. One in four (25%) 18-24 year olds (Gen Z) have worked as either a temporary agency worker, contractor or freelancer. Significantly, 41% of them say they did this in order to work flexible hours, to study or pursue hobbies for example. That’s a 7% increase, up from 34% in 2014. This compares to 25% of 45-54 year olds. For millennials (25-34 year olds), the chance to gain experience is a significant motivator. 25% choose flexible work for this reason. This compares to just 10% of over-45s.

But flexible work is just as important among the older generation. Of the 20% of people aged over 65 who have worked as a contractor or freelancer in their life, 16% did so in the last year alone. For older people, working flexible hours, for example to wind down to retirement, is a big reason (12%), as is the ability to not work for just one company (18%).

*Flexible work in this study refers to temporary agency work, contracting and freelancing.

**ONS Labour Force Survey

The research Flexibility works: Why people choose flexible work is available here.

This research follows on from the 2014 study Flex Appeal: Why freelancers, contractors and agency workers choose to work this way available here.

The research is largely based on a survey of 4,082 adults in Great Britain conducted by ComRes for the REC. Fieldwork was undertaken 7-13 August 2019. Data were weighted to be representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

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