Many trade unions are in trouble today. The percentage of employees paying a union fee has almost universally declined across Europe in recent decades. Moreover, what is left of the unions’ membership base is generally ‘greying’; Figure 1 shows that today many members are in their mid-40s to early 50s. Among the different categories of under-represented groups in unions, young people are considered to be the most ‘problematic’ in this regard. What could unions do to reconnect with them? To answer this question, I focus on three areas of motivation for union membership.

Figure 1: Median age of union members in 2014 in Europe and change compared to 2004

Source: European Social Survey. The original survey question refers to membership of a union or similar organisation. *Italy: 2012 data.

There is no such thing as widespread anti-unionism

The first motive relates to union membership as a social custom. The presence of parents, relatives and friends who support unionisation increases the likelihood of a young person developing a favourable attitude towards unions. But the transmission of such attitudes has become (much) weaker. In countries where unions have been in decline, union-friendly social networks are clearly shrinking. I argue that this provides an alternative explanation for the low rate of youth unionisation to that of media representations and political discourses, which are wrong to focus on intergenerational shifts in attitudes towards unions.

Despite claims to the contrary, virulent anti-unionism is not the problem. Certainly, tensions between young activists and unions exist. But these should be put in context: often they can be linked to inadequate union strategies, as has been the case in several south European countries since the Great Recession. All too often, however, unions tend to believe narratives that emphasise generational stereotypes, which risks excusing a lack of self-reflection on their part.

Young people’s attitudes towards unions are in fact (critically) supportive – even in the US. However, for most of these young people, there is a big question mark over the role of unions. The dwindling presence of union-friendly social networks has made unions unfamiliar to youth prior to their labour market entrance. Unions across Europe have seen this lack of deeper union knowledge as a chance to inform young people about the work of unions and about social rights (see here and here for examples of reach-out activities). But once young people make the transition from school to the labour market, it is crucial that they also find a union in their workplace, which is not always a possibility.

Labour market experiences need to be a priority focus

The second motive for union membership concerns instrumental factors. Favourable institutional frameworks, by lowering the costs of organising or servicing workers, can have a strong influence here. Figure 2 demonstrates the effect of such frameworks. In the Nordic countries and Belgium, which recorded high youth unionisation in both 2004 and 2014, unions are institutionally strongly integrated in young people’s school-to-work transitions, allowing them to gauge the benefits of membership first-hand.

The graph also reveals that a high youth unionisation rate leads to a high adult unionisation rate. Early unionisation is therefore key. As the window of opportunity becomes smaller the older workers get, unions must demonstrate their relevance in the school-to-work transition of young people. The difficulty of this lies in the fact that young people are more likely to be employed in those workplaces and economic sectors where favourable frameworks for unions are weak or lacking. The hostility of employers to union membership and a fear of victimisation among young people further contributes to a low rate of youth unionisation.

Today’s school-to-work transitions are plagued by precariousness, and the quality of youth jobs has deteriorated, with a rise in part-time and temporary work since the Great Recession. Therefore, union strategies around precarious work are of fundamental importance. Unions should reflect upon how they could develop organising strategies focused on a life-cycle approach instead of only a job-centred one. A good start for engaging young people would be to map what proportion of them are exposed to unionism and to analyse their experiences at work. If necessary, unions should also address their own current statutes and representation structures, as these might act as obstacles to union membership for those workers frequently changing employment status.

Figure 2: Unionisation rates among youth and adults in Europe, 2004 and 2014

 Source: See Figure 1.

Decisive union action is needed

The above point leads us to the third motive for union membership, which concerns ideological convictions. By promoting the principle of solidarity, unions could help to revive and strengthen the weakened traditional and instrumental motives for membership.

A good example of this approach is the successful Dutch ‘Young & United’ campaign, which achieved the partial abolishment of the youth minimum wage. In many ways, this campaign differed from union campaigns that use advertising channels highlighting the historical achievements of the labour movement. Instead of only a top-down approach, the campaign gave room to youth-led activism by escalating direct action, giving young people the confidence that their own contribution could make a difference to achieving a better regulation of the labour market. The campaign engaged them based on like-by-like recruitment, but did not address these young people as an age-defined group. Instead, by focusing on the youth minimum wage, a collective identity was forged based on a salient workplace issue that matters to them today. Making heavy use of social media, this issue-based campaign seemed effective at tapping into youth networks by using a language, visuals and messages that appealed to young people; it presented a different public image of trade unions.

Many unions still have a lot to learn about communication policies for engaging young people, whose preference for social media is based on the opportunities it offers for participation. A vast shift in resource allocation is needed to overcome the widening representation gap and to turn small-scale, local initiatives into large-scale organising efforts, especially in those growing occupations and sectors where young workers are employed and need unions the most. If the difficulties in organising young people are not addressed, other or new organisations might emerge or gain further prominence for representing them, particularly in specific segments of the labour market like the ‘gig economy’.

Unions’ organisational structures and predominant (decision-making) culture appear unattractive and unfavourable for youth participation in union democracy and action. Unions should be more responsive to and knowledgeable about the aspirations, interests and needs of young people. One way of achieving this would be to experiment with participatory democracy and informal engagement around such issues as precariousness. Fostering alliance-building between unions and relevant youth organisations, like student organisations, is another way to gain a better understanding of youth issues, including those outside the workplace. Today’s age-based union structures for youth, if and where they are in place, are insufficient for instigating a more transformative change in union strategies and practices. Training and education via mentoring and union leadership development programmes could do even more to empower young unionists. Finally, a greater involvement of young people in union life and activities should form an essential part of a broad strategic vision on the future of unions.

There is no intergenerational shift that is dooming youth unionisation to failure. Therefore, unions should not resign themselves to such a fate, but rather recognise that there is still room for manoeuvre; and, it must be stressed, the sooner the better.


Vandaele, Kurt. Forthcoming. ‘How Can Trade Unions in Europe Connect with Young Workers?’ In Youth Labor in Transition, edited by Jacqueline O’Reilly, Janine Leschke, Renate Ortlieb, Martin Seeleib-Kaiser and Paola Villa. New York: Oxford University Press.