Underemployment is growing in the UK. Being underemployed – working below your potential or preference in terms of hours, wages and/or skills, is an important social issue. It impacts individual workers and their families and communities. It is a growing concern for trade unions, employers and businesses, and policymakers.

Yet we know too little about underemployment. How much underemployment is there, how fast is it growing and where? Who are the underemployed? What causes their underemployment? What are its effects? What are the lived experiences of underemployed workers? The Underemployment Project seeks to answer these important questions.

The Underemployment Project is the ESRC funded project ‘A sociological investigation of underemployment and the lived experiences of underemployed workers’ that began in January 2023. This is a quick overview of the work we have done so far and a pre-view of the next steps.

The TWS approach: The first steps of our work, once the full research team was in place, was to update our literature review. Miguel undertook an excellent overview to establish key definitions of underemployment; different disciplinary influences; objective and subjective underemployment; and understandings and measurements of our three key forms of underemployment: time (involuntary part-time work), wages (underpaid) and skill (overqualified), which we abbreviate to TWS. The following image provides a good overview of our take on underemployment.

Tracking underemployment: In parallel, the quantitative team have been working on the first of our four datasets: the Labour Force Survey. Drawing on our conceptual understanding of underemployment as based in the literature review, working time, pay and skills use are investigated, also in relation to, for example, gender, socio-economic status and developments over time. To our knowledge, this is the first time that all three characteristics of underemployment (TWS) are brought together and, moreover, considered in terms of their potential differences and/or overlaps. The quantitative team are still busy working on this but Luis’ following graphs on pay and qualifications provides an insight into their work, showing amongst other things how women are more affected by income and skills underemployment.

What next: The next big marker for our project is the beginning of interviews with (self-identified) underemployed individuals in our four cities: Bristol, Glasgow, Nottingham and Salford. We are looking for adults who are not students and work in these cities, in either health and social care or retail and wholesale, and who fall within one of our definitions of underemployment:

  • Working part-time but want more hours or full-time work, and/or
  • Working below the real living wage (£10.90 per hour / £1,772 per month / £21,255 per year), and/or
  • Working in a job where their skills or qualifications are not fully used or required.

Participating in the research will involve an hour-long conversation this autumn (September -November 2023) about working lives; two short catchups in 2024 and another longer conversations in 2025. We think it is likely that underemployed work situations might change quite rapidly and would like to gain an understanding of how and why this happens. Above all, we are interested in the experience of underemployment: how underemployed workers feel about their situations, why they (had to?) take such a job; what implications there are for their health, their families and their social connections. Those taking part will receive £20 vouchers for each conversation and £50 for the final conversation.

We have now successfully recruited our participants, thanks to everyone for taking part!