Reconceptualising Underemployment

Dr Vanessa Beck
University of Bristol


Aims: Our Small Group of multi-disciplinary researchers from seven universities aims to address afresh the interlinked topics of underemployment and unemployment. We aim to progress knowledge of the economic world via developing innovative interdisciplinary theoretical approaches and designing appropriate investigative methodologies. 

Methods: We request funding for three workshops to help us a) develop conceptual and methodological innovations and b) progress an application for a larger research grant.

Contribution: Unemployment levels in the UK did not rise as quickly or as much as projected after the recession of 2008-9. One factor in this unexpected development was an extraordinary growth in underemployment. The continuing but accelerated growth of the underemployed – workers employed below their potential in terms of hours, skills and qualifications – raises key questions about underemployment and unemployment as consequences of social and economic turmoil, and crucial linkages between the two, both conceptually and experientially.

An innovative holistic interdisciplinary approach is essential in order to critically challenge incumbent theories and understandings around underemployment and unemployment. Too commonly studied separately, our joint position is that underemployment and unemployment must be explored concurrently if we are to better understand the state of the economic world and outcomes for workers and job seekers, their families and communities, trade unions, employers and managers.

Questions that consider the overlap between underemployment and unemployment cross established disciplinary boundaries. The core members of the Small Group, expert in the analysis of underemployment, unemployment and working lives, are located across disciplines that offer varying theoretical underpinnings and diverse methodologies. We bring these together in this unique proposal.

Value: Given the ISRF commitment to cross-fertilisation, new modes of inquiry and developing interdisciplinary expertise and methods, the project would, in the short and longer terms, positively contribute to ISRF realising these challenging and commendable goals.

The Research Idea

It is an often-repeated policy mantra that employment is the best way out of poverty. With unemployment at its lowest (4.5% for those 16+, ONS, 2017) since 1975, public and policy perceptions of the labour market should be positive. Yet being in employment no longer equals full-time, secure, good work that protects from poverty and subsequent social-psychological implications. Underemployment undermines that policy mantra. Underemployment disproportionally affects workers in lower level occupations (Warren, 2015; Warren and Lyonette, 2015), those on ‘zero hours contracts’ and within the gig economy, and results in high levels of financial and psychological distress (McBride et al., forthcoming; Kamerāde and Richardson, 2017).

This project explores the nature and impact of underemployment and unemployment. We bring together experts from diverse disciplines in order to develop conceptual understandings and advance methodological approaches. Via critical reviews of the extant literature and building upon our own research, we will:

First, identify similarities/differences between underemployment and unemployment (e.g. underutilisation of hours, skills, health/wellbeing, economic and career prospects). We ask to what extent only good jobs (as opposed to any work) are better than unemployment. This allows a re-conceptualisation of underemployment to highlight its inherent precarity.

Second, but relatedly, we assess the extent to which the experience of underemployment and unemployment are the same, which could lead to a re-evaluation of the wellbeing of the workforce.

The flexible grant would facilitate the development of theoretical insights into the suitability of the concepts of un/der-employment for classifying the new world of work.


Academic research tends to focus on unemployment and underemployment separately yet the dichotomy is breached via policy initiatives (e.g Universal Credit) and by evidence on individuals cycling between low pay and no pay (Shildrick et al., 2012). Though many studies on unemployment refer to underemployment, and vice versa, varied definitions of underemployment abound and the study and comparison of unemployment and underemployment in a systematic and theoretical manner is limited. As the two states have similar effects: increased risk of poverty, financial stress, poor health and well-being, it has been proposed that they be viewed on a continuum (Dooley 2003).

Our understanding of the assumed wisdom that paid work, any job, is better than unemployment is also shifting. In their study of low-paid multiple employment, Smith and McBride (2017) demonstrate that, despite having multiple jobs, many people still find themselves needing more work to survive. McQuaid et al. (2010) highlight multiple factors that kept individuals unemployed or working poor through low paid work and underemployment. Beck (2017) emphasises the broad social-psychological implications of such experiences. Yet the implications from these findings for a continuum from unemployment to good work have not been considered.

Moreover, much of the research on underemployment so far has been atheoretical (despite Feldman’s critique in 1996). Re-thinking the conceptualisation of underemployment is crucial, given its increasing prominence in the labour market (Bell and Blanchflower 2013; Heyes et al. 2016) and consequences for welfare policy, the economy and society. Our joint research will fill this theoretical void.

The Focus

Underemployment is a pressing real life problem. Unemployment rates are low in the UK but the growth in underemployment poses problems for individuals unable to find appropriate employment and who experience similar individual, social and economic real-life problems as those typically associated with unemployment. Current political developments (e.g. austerity, Brexit) and continued labour market flexibilisation mean that this situation is likely to continue if not worsen. Access to decent paid employment is not evenly distributed, with women (Kamerāde and Richardson, 2017; Lyonette and Baldauf 2010) and individuals from working-class backgrounds (Warren, 2015; Warren and Lyonette 2015) especially disadvantaged. Additional barriers are experienced by lone parents (Bond et al. 2009, McQuaid et al. 2010), young entrants into the labour market and older workers who are being encouraged to work longer (Beck, 2015; Beck and Williams, 2015).

Our holistic, interdisciplinary and multi-methods approach combines a theoretical focus on the re-conceptualisation of underemployment with an empirically grounded assessment of the experiences of underemployment and unemployment. Cross-fertilisation between these two strands will be enabled by our Small Group’s in-depth discussions during which we will draw on our various disciplinary and empirical experience. In parallel, it will be important to keep abreast policy developments such as the delayed roll out of Universal Credit (Butler and Walker, 2016) aimed at both unemployed and working poor individuals. The combination of abstract, academic thinking with real world insights is a much-needed innovation that will result in fresh conceptual approach to momentous contemporary real-life work problems.

Theoretical Novelty

The theoretical novelty of this research lies in the re-conceptualisation of underemployment and unemployment in the UK under austerity. Specifically, the research aims to:

  • Compare and contrast theoretical considerations on underemployment with empirical insights into the experience of unemployment and underemployment.
  • Establish a coherent and interdisciplinary definition of underemployment. This will allow a reframing of the discussions around underemployment and unemployment to reflect their similarities, pinpoint any differences, as well as expose the economic and social realities of the economic world of austerity UK.
  • The holistic framework that results from the project will be truly interdisciplinary, forged upon a systematic critical engagement with and cross-fertilisation of ideas including from Beck (Management), Fuertes (Social Policy), Kamerade (Sociology/Psychology), Lyonette (Sociology/Psychology), McBride (Industrial Relations), Smith (HRM/Employment Relations), Warren (Sociology).
  • Defining underemployment from such a multidisciplinary perspective and developing a theoretical framework for its study will provide a new way to highlight and tackle deeply held preconceptions about ‘the unemployed’ and ‘the working poor’, which have the potential to aid social integration and cohesion.
  • The foundational research funded by this grant will enable the Small Group to investigate structural, institutional, and individual factors and consequences of underemployment and unemployment. By doing so, the research will encourage a consideration of the broader implications for paid work in general. The current policy obsession with the supply side of the labour market and an ‘any work, at all costs’ approach masks a range of negative and potentially damaging employment conditions.


We will develop an interdisciplinary conceptual framework and formulate an innovative multi-methods research strategy.

Interdisciplinarity, or the cross fertilisation across different disciplines, is associated with high levels of creativity, progress and innovation. It can provide solutions to, or help to enhance findings and further understand complex challenges (Gibbons et al. 1994). However, it is also recognised that there are potential difficulties in engaging interdisciplinary frameworks, epistemologies and methodologies, with boundaries separating disciplines that hinder meaningful dialogue. Bruce et al (2004) provided valuable solutions to these challenges, stressing the importance of careful consortium development, that we already addressed as a group. Identified and invited by the Co-applicants, the team members previously engaged in a 2-day intensive workshop where we shared our research interests, pooled understanding of our disciplinary methodologies, compared ideas and problems, and used diagramming to identify our collectively-agreed problem definition.    

We will draw upon our mixed-method research expertise to formulate appropriate empirical inquiry. Quantitative secondary data analyses (Kamerade, Lyonette, Warren) allow the study of factors related to unemployment and underemployment over time; while qualitative methods (Beck, Fuertes, Lyonette, McBride, Smith) provide an opportunity to explore mechanisms and consequence of underemployment and unemployment, the day-to-day experiences of individuals and households, and the possibilities of empowerment and change. Bringing together diverse methodologies is innovative in the field of underemployment research. Moreover, in addition to combining our expertise in traditional methods, the potential of more innovative research methods (e.g. visual methods or Big Data) for the study of underemployment will be explored.

Work Plan

The core group started off their collaborative discussions at a 2-day workshop, seed-corn funded by the University of Nottingham (June 2017). The ISRF grant is requested to help us a) develop conceptual innovations and b) work up an application for a larger research proposal.

The grant would fund two 1.5 day workshops to bring the whole group together from around the UK, and a third smaller mid-term writing workshop to draft a larger grant application. The draft will be disseminated and discussed at the second 1.5 day project workshop. In parallel, a conference stream will be organised (e.g. at the ‘Work, Employment and Society’ conference) to open up the group for potential expansion via a call for contributions and discussion of un/der-employment.

1. First 1.5 day project workshop: January 2018.

Aims: to initiate discussions on reconceptualization and devise a writing plan.

2. Co-PIs will put together a stream proposal in February/March 2018.

3. Mid-term writing workshop: June/July 2018 (max 5 members).

Aims: to progress with drafting the research proposal.

4. Work, Employment and Society Conference, Belfast, September 2018

Thematic stream / sessions on un/der-employment

5. Dissemination and reviewing of draft research proposal: October 2018.

6. Second 1.5 day project workshop: November/December 2018.

Aims: discuss the research proposal and the implications for the broader reconceptualization of underemployment.


The primary outcome of the workshops will be an interdisciplinary and practically workable conceptualization of underemployment. Our foundations in different disciplinary and methodological approaches, as well as in the empirical research already conducted by members of the group, will help us dig deeper into the problematic nature of the concept.

In parallel, a grant application will be discussed and developed to investigate the empirical applicability of the new conceptualisation. That project will aim to explore whether the reconceptualization of underemployment reflects the lived experiences of those who are in this situation and how it might impact employers, trade unions, NGOs, etc. (targeted funder: ESRC or Leverhulme).

Further Steps:

  • The very real and lived experiences of underemployed individuals will be publicly highlighted. This will be achieved via exploring a Special Issue of a journal (such as Sociology or Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare). Potential papers will be discussed as part of the two main meetings of the group.
  • As part of the larger grant application, we will develop a longer-term impact plan, matching impact goals with the main messages arising from our research and identifying relevant stakeholder groups and impact activities. We will identify funding sources to support this step. We will draw on our existing contacts: in trade unions (TUC, USDAW, GMB), with employers’ representatives, NGOs, policy makers and think tanks.

Longer term outcomes:

  • Our UK-based but multi-national group envisage building upon our established connections to develop an international expert group on underemployment and unemployment.


Beck, V. (2015) Learning providers’ work with NEET young people, Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 67(4): 482-496.

Beck, V. (2017) Capabilities and choices of vulnerable, long-term unemployed individuals, Work, Employment and Society,

Beck, V. and Williams, G. (2015) The (performance) management of retirement and the limits of individual choice, Work, Employment and Society, 29(2): 267-277.

Bell, D.N.F and Blanchflower, D.G. (2013)Underemployment in the UK Revisited, National Institute Economic Review, 224: F8-F22.

Bond, S., Mcquaid, R. & Fuertes, V. (2009) Getting Disadvantaged Parents into Employment: The Working for Families Fund in Scotland, Local Economy, 24(6): 487–501.

Bruce, A et al. (2004) Interdisciplinary integration in Europe: the case of the Fifth Framework programme, Futures, 36(4): 457-470

Butler, P. and Walker, P. (2016) Universal credit falls five years behind schedule, The Guardian, 20 July 2016.

Dooley, D. (2003) Unemployment, underemployment, and mental health: conceptualizing employment status as a continuum, American Journal of Community Psychology, 32(1-2): 9-20.

Feldman, D. (1996) The nature, antecedents and consequences of underemployment. Journal of Management, 22(3): 385–407.

Gibbons, M., et al. (1994) The New Production of Knowledge. London: Sage.

Heyes, J., Tomlinson, M. and Whitworth, A. (2016) ‘Underemployment and well-being in the UK before and after the Great Recession’, Work, Employment and Society, 31, 1|: 71-89

Kamerāde, D and Richardson, H (2017, forthcoming) Gender segregation, underemployment and subjective well-being in the UK labour market. Human Relations.

Lyonette, C. and Baldauf, B. (2010) Quality Part-time Work: Responses to the Recession. London: Government Equalities Office.

McBride, J., Smith, A. and Mbala, M. (forthcoming)‘’You end up with nothing’: the experience of being a statistic of ‘in work poverty’ in the UK’, Work, Employment and Society.

McQuaid, R., Fuertes, V. & Richard, A. (2010) How can parents escape from recurrent poverty? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

ONS (2017) UK labour market: July 2017, Office for National Statistics.

Shildrick, T. et al. (2012) Poverty and Insecurity – Life in low-pay, no-pay Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.

Warren, T. (2015) Work-time underemployment and financial hardship: class inequalities and recession in the UK, Work, Employment and Society, 29(2): 191–212.

Warren, T. and Lyonette, C. (2015) The quality of part-time work in Britain. In F, Green, A, Felstead and D. Gallie (eds). Unequal Britain at Work: The Evolution and Distribution of Intrinsic Job Quality in Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.