Youth looking to the future

UNISON has raised the age limit of its young members to 30. Two activists discuss how the change will affect and empower the self-organised group within the union

It felt like one of the most significant developments at this year’s national delegate conference, in June. The amendment to rule D2.5.1 in the UNISON rule book, which changed the definition of ‘young member’ from 26 and under, to 30 and under.

The rule change started with a motion passed at young members’ conference in late 2022, which was then put into effect by the national delegates.

According to the union’s young member’s officer, Josephine Grahl: “It reflects the changes in the workforce that have happened since UNISON’s first young members’ groups were established in 1996.

“These include the increase in school leaving age, the expansion of participation in higher and further education, and the fact that the public sector workforce tends, these days, to be older than average.”

With the age limit at 26, these workforce changes meant that by the time young members had joined the union and become active, they had very little time left before they ‘aged out’.

Improving continuity

Latia (pictured above, left), a library officer from Greater London says: “I’m 23, so I wasn’t feeling the pressure of ‘ageing out’ at all, but I think a lot of young members were. Especially those who were 26 but who had only just become active – they were going to fall into the abyss and probably out of activism.”

Sean Neighbour (above right), a welfare rights technical support officer for Lancashire County Council, notes that the rule change helps with the transition from being an active young member to other activist roles in the union.

“The average age of the union membership is into the 50s – and older with union reps – so it’s hard to break through the structures,” he says. “In every branch, or every region, there will be people who have been in their positions for years. And I think that puts people off trying to get involved.”

This is backed by the results of a survey which UNISON ran in November 2020, which suggests that young members generally feel positive about the union but can sometimes feel “intimidated or anxious” about their chances of getting more involved – a feeling which was reportedly more common among young women, Black and LGBT+ members.

Issues for young workers in the public sector

In many ways the issues that young members face in the union are mirrored by the difficulties they experience in the public sector. A lack of clear career path or a feeling of stagnated progression means young people are overlooking public sector jobs or leaving.

Sean says: “I definitely think it’s true that young people don’t see many public sector jobs as careers. You can break in and get the entry level jobs. But then to get higher up you need to have qualifications or experience, and that depends on your managers, their support and budgets. It’s not straightforward.”

Latia tells the story of one colleague, a heritage officer, who went for a job interview, asked about the route for career progression and was told by the line-manager: ‘You throw me under the bus’.

Participation: Education and support are key

So how do you increase the participation of young members in the union?

The 2020 survey noted that educational and learning activities are particularly popular among young members, whether it is trade union or political education, skills development, confidence building or career-related education.

Sean definitely believes that young member activism should offer a supportive environment in which to build up essential union skills, whether its chairing meetings or running campaigns.

“It’s about giving young people the skillset and the knowledge to progress. It’s also an opportunity to build that solidarity and connection.

“So, support your young members. Don’t just put them in the young members officer seat. Ask them: ‘What’s your skill set?’. Maybe they’re really good on comms, or interested in chairing meetings. Is there a vice chair role, or could they shadow the chair?”

Recruitment: ‘Young members should be the heart’

When asked how UNISON can better recruit young members, Latia says: “There’s a feeling that young members are like a second kidney to the union. Yes, we’re useful, we’re doing stuff – but I have a sense that the body feels like it could get on just fine without us.

“To be able to recruit young people and get them active, the union needs to present a new, different vehicle for change for the future.”

She laughs. “If we’re going to keep stretching the body metaphor, young members should be the heart of the union.”

What does the rule change mean for young member numbers?

  • Moving the age limit to 30 has increased the number of young members by almost 50,000
  • It takes the total number of young members to almost 110,000

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