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Where's the Z in ‘social care workforce’?


The 19-year-old actor Millie Bobby Brown said recently that she would have worked in a care home if she hadn’t found success in Hollywood (she was a breakout star of the Netflix series Stranger Things).  

If so, she would have been an exception. 18-24-year-olds make up only 8% of the social care workforce, below the average for other parts of the economy. That’s long been seen as a problem. The social care sector needs every single worker it can find to tackle chronic staff shortages and if it fails to recruit younger people it is missing out on a potential goldmine – the number of 18-year-olds will increase sharply over the next decade.  

That’s why The King’s Fund has begun a programme of work to understand the extent of the problem, its causes and what might be done about them.   

We’ve started with some analysis of the current involvement of younger people in the adult social care workforce. They are more likely than over-25s to be working in direct care (mainly, though not exclusively, care workers and senior care workers), slightly more likely to be working with older people, and less likely to be in permanent employment.  

The biggest problem doesn’t seem to be recruitment – more than 1 in 6 new starters are under-25 – but retention: under-25s care workers employed in 2014 were only half as likely as over-25s to still be employed in the sector in 2023. Despite the low levels of retention overall for under-25s, there is a hint of a silver lining – some of those who have stayed have progressed to management roles within their organisations, although three quarters have remained direct care workers.  

'Despite the low levels of retention overall for under-25s, there is a hint of a silver lining'

We also found that there is variation between providers in the number of under-25s they employ. Some larger organisations (those with more than 50 total staff) have at least 20% of their staff from Generation Z while others have none whatsoever. So might the problem instead relate to employer attitudes? Our initial work with social care employers, which will be published early next year, suggests large variations here.  

We’ve spoken to many organisations that are real enthusiasts for employing younger people and go out of their way to find them and help them thrive. In fact, several of the people we’ve met started out as young care workers themselves. We’ve also spoken to lots of organisations that, while not quite so enthusiastic, see recruiting and retaining young people to be a critical part of their workforce strategy. But we’ve also heard stories of organisations that see younger people as difficult to employ and, perhaps, more trouble than they’re worth. We’ll aim to understand more about these attitudes and where they come from.  

Our goal is to help the social care sector become more effective at recruiting and retaining younger workers. We’re working with an external reference group that includes representatives of the Department of Health and Social Care, large and small social care providers, people who draw on services, and other stakeholders such as Skills for Care and The Prince’s Trust (for whom we carried out a short scoping study in this area in 2018). We also have a reference group of younger people that will help steer us as we start interviews next year with younger care workers and college students. 

We may not be able to make working in social care more attractive than the starry acting career that Millie Bobby Brown has achieved. But can we make the sector a better, more welcoming and more effective employer of Generation Z than it is now?  

It may be a tough sell but stranger things have happened.   

We welcome interest in this research. If you’d like to discuss it, please contact Simon Bottery at [email protected]  

Young people in the adult social care workforce

To expand our understanding of the challenges and opportunities in social care, The King’s Fund is undertaking a major new piece of research focusing on the young people who may make up the next generation of the social care workforce.

Find out more