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Long read

Changemakers or troublemakers: what do social care providers think of younger workers?

Key points

  • Younger workers are under-represented in social care: only 8% of the workforce is under 25.

  • The King’s Fund spoke to people from 11 social care providers about their organisations’ experience of recruiting and retaining younger care workers, and about how the wider social care sector responds to younger workers. The providers we interviewed:

    • told us younger staff had a great dealt to offer social care, for example, their familiarity with technology

    • said employing younger people has drawbacks and that many social care organisations were reluctant to employ them

    • do not tailor their recruitment processes specifically to younger people but that some support for new starters might disproportionately benefit younger workers

    • told us the main reason for younger workers leaving the sector was the inherent challenges of social care jobs, for which younger people were not necessarily prepared

    • felt that there were some things that individual social care organisations could do to better support younger workers, but that other actions needed providers to work together locally or nationally, including work to change the image of the sector.

  • The King’s Fund’s recommendations include:

    • addressing stereotypical attitudes in the sector towards younger people

    • creating more cohesive sector representation locally and regionally, ensuring younger workers are part of providers’ wider recruitment strategies

    • promoting work within the sector realistically

    • ensuring the sector has the resources it needs to tackle workforce issues strategically.

  • The King’s Fund is currently carrying out interviews with younger people in the social care workforce and will publish this research in summer 2024.

Introduction

Social care has a problem with young people. In the overall economy, under-25s make up 11% of the workforce, and in some sectors younger people are the backbone of the workforce (around half of all waiters and waitresses are under 25). In adult social care, however, only 8% of the workforce is under 25.

This is despite considerable recruitment – of those who started in their current role less than a year ago, 17% are under 25. However, there is substantial turnover of under-25s over time: only 28% of under-25s in the social care workforce in 2014 were still in the sector four years later.

So what explains social care’s workforce issues with younger people? And what can be done about them? As part of wider work to explore the issue, including upcoming work to report the experiences of younger workers themselves, The King’s Fund spoke with representatives of 11 social care providers from medium-sized and large companies (these types of organisations employ almost half of the adult social care workforce). The providers varied in the type of care provided, the settings in which they provided it, and the types of people who typically drew on their services. Where known, the proportion of 18–25s they employed ranged from 3% to 25%.

We spoke with individuals occupying a range of senior leadership positions, including chief executives, human resources managers and recruitment managers (see Summary of research methods). Below we share what they told us about younger people and what they think might need to happen at organisational, sector and national level to attract and retain more young people into the sector.

We then offer some reflections and recommendations for the sector around challenging organisations to think about whether they really do want to attract more younger people into the workforce and, if so, what changes they need to be prepared to make for that to happen.

Later this year, we will publish the findings of our interviews with young people themselves.

Employing young people

The providers interviewed believe young people have much to offer the social care sector – but employing them also has drawbacks

We heard a wide and sometimes inconsistent range of opinions about younger people from participants. These opinions were based on experiences in the workplace but also, sometimes, on participants’ personal experiences with young people more generally.

Participants associated younger people with a ‘sparkiness’, a can-do attitude and a sense of fun that brightens up the lives of those with whom they work. Some participants commented on the strong personal connections and ‘love’ that they observed in the relationships that some young care workers forge with the people they support, which they felt improved the quality of life of those who draw on social care.

Participants also described young people as fierce advocates for social justice and human rights (both their own and those of people who draw on services). Participants thought these qualities were a good fit with adult social care and on occasions could offer a valuable ‘challenge’ to practice that might be improved.

Some participants saw younger people as generally more willing to speak up for themselves, as well as on behalf of the people they support.

'I've found they are very forthcoming if there's an issue or a complaint or praise, anything, they will come and speak to you.'
HR/recruitment manager

Young people were also sometimes seen as more ‘mouldable’ and open to learning because they did not bring as much previous experience with them.

'They are willing to learn and they are willing to do things your way because they’ve not been taught another way and you’ve got the chance to work with a clean slate really, and just mould people into the worker and the workforce that you want.'
Senior manager

Another positive of having younger people on the workforce was the potential to match the needs or wishes of clients to the characteristics of care workers. For younger workers, this might particularly apply to clients who were younger themselves.

'We've got a young chap we look after, he's 21, really in quite a controlled home environment... He went to a concert last week with a 25-year-old and 24-year-old [careworker]. He said, ‘For the first time I felt normal.’'
Senior manager

Many participants saw younger people’s familiarity with technology as positive. They recognised young people aged 18–25 (so called ‘Generation Z’) as the first ‘digital natives’ – people who grew up with digital technology as part of their everyday lives – and often felt they would lead the way for the sector in its increased use of technology.

'We've got a young person [who draws on services] here who's really into TikTok. We [needed] to tell her how her care package was going to work and who's on it. So one of my young team here, [name], has done a TikTok for her so she understands the care team…. I wouldn't know how to do a TikTok, I've got to be honest, I've got no idea but [name] can.'
Senior manager

However, this focus on technology was not always necessarily seen as positive. We heard that it can be ‘so, so difficult trying to get young people to leave their phones alone’, while some participants felt that social media has shortened the attention span of younger people and instilled a need for ‘instant gratification’ that means they are ‘impatient’ and expect things to happen immediately. Some worried that young people expected instant positive results in their work, whereas meaningful change in a person’s quality of life may take a long time to achieve.

Another perceived difference between younger people and previous generations entering the workforce was what some participants described as ‘workplace readiness’. Some felt that a consequence of the Covid-19 lockdowns had been that young people had not learnt essential life skills, such as managing their time or realising that they might have to ‘show up for work’ at all.

One participant told us that younger members of the workforce were more likely than their older colleagues to be late or simply not to turn up for a shift at work. They reported that the young people did not always understand the implications of this for the wider team, instead exhibiting an attitude of ‘Well, I’m not getting paid [if I don’t come in for my shift] so what’s the big deal?’

It was also suggested that Generation Z is a ‘mollycoddled’ generation that, for example, has not had to learn how to cook because their parents – or ‘Uber Eats’ – provides food for them.

There was also a sense that younger people reported more concerns with their mental health. We explore this issue further in section 3.

Participants also had mixed feelings about younger people’s attitudes towards work and career progression. While they thought that young people were keen to progress quickly, there was a sense that they will tend towards a portfolio career to facilitate this rather than sticking to one role or career pathway for life.

Providers want more young people

The providers we interviewed did want more young people in social care – but thought that not all social care providers shared this view

Despite mixed views about younger people, participants generally felt it was both important and necessary to bring more young people into the workforce.

As well as wanting the workforce to reflect the diversity of the people who use services, many participants felt it was important that the sector ‘grows its own leaders’. Indeed, it was striking that many participants had started out in the sector at a young age in junior roles before progressing to very senior positions.

Participants also felt there was a strong practical reason for hiring younger people: availability. With vacancies running very high, some participants spoke of a sense of desperation to recruit care workers of any age to fill positions. However, this was sometimes acknowledged to be a short-term initiative rather than part of a longer-term workforce strategy.

'I think in other bits of the sector… given the recruitment crisis, you know, people will take anybody on, but sort of consider young people more as … I’m massively over generalising but as, sort of, cannon fodder. Quite happy that they come in and do 16 or 18 months or something and just going to have a steady churn at the lower end of the sector.'
Senior manager

However, participants felt that many other providers – or even other managers within their own organisation – were much more cautious about recruiting younger people. This was linked to a general acknowledgement that younger people joining the workforce required more ‘wraparound care’ than their older colleagues, and that for many in the sector the investment of time and energy into supporting a young person is sometimes deemed to be more trouble than it is worth.

Some participants also told us about bad experiences involving young people in care settings, ranging from data protection breaches to playing hazardous games with care home residents, for example, daring a care home resident to eat a teaspoon of chilli powder.

Participants said it would not be surprising, therefore, if some providers might prefer to hire older candidates to a care worker role, partly because younger people were assumed to have less life experience and also because of assumptions about younger people’s behaviour:

'We’ve had it in some of our services where managers have turned around and said, ‘Oh don’t give me anyone young’ because they make these assumptions – they can’t cook… they’re going to be on their phone all the time… they’re going to be unreliable because they’re going to be out clubbing and they might not turn up.'
Senior manager

Participants also reported reluctance among some managers to offer shorter and more flexible shift patterns to younger people because this would disrupt the consistency and continuity for people drawing on services. There were also stated concerns about legal restrictions on employing people under 18.

Tailoring recruitment, interviews and staff support

Few of the providers we interviewed tailored their recruitment, interview or staff support specifically to younger people

Due to a high vacancy rate, many providers had scaled up their recruitment to find more staff but did not generally target younger people in particular. Some providers had streamlined and simplified the application process (shortening the application form, making it smartphone-friendly, advertising on sites that support one-click applications); others had made some adjustments to the advertisements themselves (eg, adding information about travel options for reaching the care home) and found this had resulted in an upswing in applications from young people.

At interview stage, participants said that they used the same approach for all applicants, irrespective of age. The interview itself tended to be ‘values-based’ rather than looking particularly for previous experience.

As with recruitment, participants reported using the same onboarding process for new starters, regardless of age. Typically, this comprised an online induction course, a shadowing period of up to two weeks, a buddy or mentoring system, regular check-ins with managers, a DBS (disclosure and barring service) check and a medical questionnaire. Some participants reflected that DBS checks can take some time and that this might mean roles in other sectors (eg, bar work) could be more attractive to young people because they can start earning money far more quickly.

We did hear about steps to support new starters in the workplace that might disproportionately benefit younger people. We heard about one company that had developed an app to encourage feedback between staff and the chief executive. Some senior figures within provider organisations said they made it a priority to welcome new starters and to discuss their career development journey and the opportunities available to new recruits as a way of encouraging them to stay in the sector.

'I will often jump into day one of an induction just to talk a bit about the company and about further training and development opportunities, if people want to do qualifications with us they can, and just put that out on the table in the induction in the first 12 weeks, so they know that we are here for them for the long haul, should they want to be with us for the long haul.'
Senior manager

Participants hoped that managers and co-workers would identify and deliver individual support for staff, taking account of age where necessary. We heard that for some young people there was a significant ‘shock’ at seeing somebody without any clothes on, or potentially working with somebody at the end of their lives. Participants felt that ‘handholding’ to support someone through these initial experiences was essential to ensure the emotional wellbeing of people – particularly in the first few months of employment.

'If we’ve got someone who’s very new into care and very new into working life, if they’re 18, maybe had a bit of a Saturday job but nothing much more than that, then absolutely there needs to be a lot more handholding and support there.'
Senior manager

These support needs might also relate to some of the ‘professional’ skills needed to work as part of a team in a workplace. However, it was noted that some managers may not have the capacity to provide effective support to younger care workers, especially if they manage more than one site or team. One participant reported the ‘resentment’ that could arise from more experienced and/or older colleagues in some circumstances.

'Because what we are getting, what we have been getting the last five years, I’d say, is a lot of, resentment’s probably a strong word, but I’ll use it, the resentment from the more experienced older workforce about having young people in and having to constantly train new people in new skills.'
Senior manager

Across the interviews, we heard about the importance of showcasing the possibilities available to young care workers by way of career progression.

'If you’re bright, you can progress relatively quickly… and not bright necessarily academically but, you know, you can progress pretty damn quickly and you can earn some decent money.'
Senior manager

However, even where companies identified ‘rising stars’, participants acknowledged that there were only a certain number of senior positions into which care workers might hope to progress.

Exceptionally, some participants told us about talent programmes and training opportunities that they fund for staff within their organisations, including diplomas, apprenticeships and other qualifications that might enable a care worker to develop.

'They might want to go into compliance management, they might want to become a nurse, they might want to become a nursing associate, they might want to become a care co-ordinator or a registered manager. A good employer will help them get to all those places.'
Senior manager

As described in section 1, participants thought that this generation of younger people required, and expected, support for their mental health in the workplace. One reported that absences due to mental health were more common among 18–25-year-olds than among older colleagues.

In exceptional instances, participants said they had mental health first aiders, wellbeing checks and psychological support available to support their care workers as and when needed, with one participant reporting lower turnover in staff where this support was proactively offered to new starters.

Demanding nature of the role

Providers believe the key reason for younger people leaving the sector is the demanding nature of the role

Participants cited young people being surprised and challenged by the demanding nature of care work and the very high level of responsibility for people’s wellbeing – even their lives – as the main reason for them leaving care work.

This was felt to be partly to do with low levels of awareness of what care work is to begin with; partly because young people may not have practical experience of what it is like to provide personal care; partly because job advertisements and interviewing processes do not always convey some of the realities of the role; and partly as a result of under-resourcing across the sector, placing increasing demands on the remaining workforce.

'I think you invariably in home care are now witness to unmet needs, because you’re probably shutting the door on people that you know need more care than we’re giving. So I think those… are the things that drive people away.'
Senior manager

The reality of the role could lead to early decisions about staying or leaving. As another participant put it, ‘People work out quite quickly whether or not it’s the right type of role for them’. Another said:

'Some people absolutely have left after the first couple of shadow shifts because they've been completely freaked out by it. Because you can do training and you can show them useful things and you can do all sorts of things, but actually the reality is it can be quite ...shocking.'
Senior manager

Participants felt that another significant reason why young people leave the sector was related to their relationships with their manager and teammates, and the extent to which they feel supported, recognised and valued in their organisation. This included the extent to which young care workers felt a sense of belonging and kinship with colleagues of a similar age. While participants felt this was especially important for younger care workers, in particular, as they learn and adjust to the demands of the role, it was acknowledged that a sense of belonging and safety at work matters to all care workers – indeed, to employees everywhere.

Participants also felt that offering flexibility to young people to support their mental wellbeing and promote more of a ‘work–life balance’ was important in retaining them, although it was acknowledged that care work cannot offer as much flexibility as, for example, office-based roles that make it possible to work from home.

Participants told us that hyper-local factors could affect both the recruitment and the retention of staff: whether the area was inner city or rural; the demographic make-up of the area (and the proportion of young people looking for work in the area); and the availability of public transport. Providers based in rural settings said that the length of the commute and the lack of availability of public transport was another reason why some young people choose to leave.

Participants often mentioned pay as a reason why young people leave. However, it was not felt to be something that providers were able to address, and it was rarely cited as the chief reason for leaving.

'It's not always about pay, it's about having a good structure, about feeling valued, about feeling part of the team, about feeling they're doing good. A lot of the young people, it's not just about pay, it's about the wraparound stuff. It's really important.'
Senior manager

Action needed at different levels

The providers we interviewed think action is needed at provider, sector and national levels.

Broadly, participants broke actions into three areas: those that individual providers can take; those that require collaboration across the social care sector (and possibly including health); and those that require broader government-level action.

What individual providers can do

Participants felt there were ‘hygiene factors’ that individual employers could, and should, do better. These included ensuring that young care workers feel recognised and valued for their work, and bringing the rest of the workforce on board with the benefits of having more young people working in the sector.

This also included finding ways to offer more flexible working options to younger people, particularly students whose availability to work fluctuates according to term time.

However, some participants said they had faced an uphill battle within their organisations to convince their colleagues of the value of investing time and energy in young people when this time and energy is so precious.

What the social care sector needs to do

Providers felt that many of the issues around recruitment and retention of younger people could only realistically be tackled if organisations in the sector worked together.

Sometimes this was at a local or regional level, where participants called for a shared strategy for recruiting and retaining young people in the workforce, as well as building links with the local community. While education was not a major route through which providers directly recruited young people, Participants still felt that schools and colleges could provide an important opportunity to influence young people’s attitudes and career decisions.

Exceptionally, some providers had forged relationships with schools and colleges in their area and went into the classroom to increase awareness and discuss perceptions of the sector with students directly. They had found that interactive, practical sessions – for example, around how to use personal protective equipment (PPE) – were helpful ways to introduce young people (and their parents and teachers) to social care as a prospective career.

While traditionally the movement of staff to the health sector has been considered a loss for social care, some participants wondered whether it might be helpful to position care work as a ‘stepping stone’ to other roles across health and social care, potentially bringing more young people through the ‘front door’ in the first place and resulting in a net gain for the system as a whole.

'We’ve got somebody at the moment who is… training to be a junior doctor and they come back and they work with us while they’re at uni. But we know when they graduate, they’re not going to come back and work with us, but they are going to be a junior doctor for the sector, and for everybody.'
Senior manager

What needs to happen at national level?

Some issues went beyond what individual providers or even local/regional partnerships might achieve, requiring support from national policy-makers. Some participants felt strongly that there was a case to be made for a national campaign to promote care work and the opportunities for progression that exist within the sector.

Participants saw this as needing to be part of a wider public engagement exercise to increase recognition of, and respect for, the sector. Its current reputation was felt to be steeped in stereotypes, ranging from care homes that smell of ‘cabbage soup’ to changing incontinence pads. As a result, young people sought different careers.

'People want to be influencers, don’t they? They want to be the next Molly-Mae or whoever. They don’t necessarily want to be working in a care home, spoon-feeding people or whatever. It’s just not seen as a glamorous or attractive line of work, is it, necessarily?'
HR/recruitment manager

Some participants felt there was a need for a centralised effort to influence young people’s perceptions of the social care sector. There was also a belief that parents and teachers encourage students to opt for more ‘academic’ and ‘ambitious’ subjects and career options, including health, further undermining care work as a potential career choice.

Some felt that badging social care as ‘care work’ rather than as a ‘profession’ was part of the problem, potentially exacerbated by emphasising the importance of ‘values’ in recruitment, rather than academic excellence or qualifications. They noted that some aspects of care work can be a matter of life and death – for example, accurately storing and administering medication.

However, for other participants, the values-based nature of the recruitment process opened up care work as a potential career for people who might otherwise not feel they have many career options available to them. This includes those who were unemployed or not academically inclined at school.

'We’ve got an awful lot of people, young people who didn't stand a chance at school, they were dyslexic, they weren’t supported, may have mild learning difficulties, that have actually found a place… Fair enough they can't write a great big care plan, we’ll support them with that. If they've got the passion… to care for someone, you can't train that.'
Senior manager

Perhaps more pragmatically, it was acknowledged that in 2022/23 there were 152,000 vacancies in the sector and providers may not have the luxury of turning applicants down.

'We wouldn’t say no to any age, basically.'
HR/recruitment manager

Improving pay was associated with improving perceptions of the sector, something that participants felt could only be improved alongside increased fees for social care and, in turn, additional investment from central government.

One final way in which participants felt policy-makers could support this work was by establishing a formal career progression pathway for social care devised in partnership with the sector.

Reflections and recommendations

The findings above should give the social care sector pause for thought. Inevitably, there are no simple solutions, but providers need to consider whether they really do want to attract more younger people and, if so, what changes they are prepared to make for that to happen.

Below, we outline a number of key discussion points for the sector.

Address attitudes within the sector towards younger people

We mainly spoke to participants who were positive about recruiting more young workers. Yet even within this group we found inconsistent attitudes – some of which mirror attitudes towards Generation Z more widely and which risk exaggerating the differences between, and stereotypes of, young people compared with older generations.

There are three issues with using these attitudes as the basis for recruitment and retention in adult social care.

First, while generational differences do exist (for example, Generation Z is demonstrably more socially progressive in some areas than previous generations), these differences are ‘more subtle than many headlines would have us believe’. Second, even if there are significant differences in behaviour or attitude between Generation Z and older generations, they will not apply to all younger people. Third, even if these differences exist, they do not necessarily affect young people’s ability to work effectively in adult social care, particularly if they have the right support.

Providers, and the social care sector generally, therefore need an honest but evidenced debate about what younger people bring to the table as care workers, as well as what limitations they may have, and how providers might need to adapt to accommodate younger people (and other under-represented groups in the sector, such as men). This debate should draw on the experiences of younger people (The King’s Fund will contribute to this over the next few months with publication of research into what younger people think about working in care). It will also need support from government and national bodies.

Have a wider workforce strategy but one that includes younger people within it

While there is the potential to attract more young people into the adult social care workforce, they are unlikely to form the majority of that workforce. Providers will therefore need a recruitment and retention strategy for all ages, not just younger people. In practice, many of the reasons cited by providers as to why young people leave the sector will apply to all ages. People’s relationships with their line manager and colleagues, their health and wellbeing, the flexibility of their roles and, of course, pay and benefits, affect all age groups. Many of the ways to improve recruitment and retention of young people will apply to all staff, with different segments more affected by some factors than others. However, if providers wish to attract more staff, they cannot afford to ignore young people, and must recognise how policy and practice might need to flex to accommodate younger people’s needs.

Create more cohesive sector representation at local/regional level

Participants recognised the need for the sector to come together, whether locally, regionally or nationally, to create and manage opportunities to better recruit younger people. However, this is hindered by the size, and particularly the structure, of the sector, with 18,000 separate organisations, many of them very small. There is clearly a role for national representative bodies, but it may be at local level that there is the greatest opportunity through local care associations who can work with, for example, the local education sector to develop career routes. This also applies at integrated care system (ICS) level, though in practice it has proved difficult for the provider sector to input into ICS development. To do this effectively, the sector may have to resolve, or at least accept and work around, some of its own internal divisions, seen in this long read in the tension between a ‘values-based’ approach to recruitment and the desire to see care as a ‘profession’.

Promote work in adult social care realistically

There is clearly merit in the sector’s desire to improve the reputation of social care and better recognise the job satisfaction, skills involved and the potential for career progression. However, such a campaign needs to be grounded in the realities of social care. Many people will not currently be paid at a level that reflects the skills involved in the role; their job satisfaction may be affected by intense demands in a sector with high levels of vacancies and low levels of public funding; career progression has been meteoric for some staff, but for those who stay in the sector, the great majority remain in care roles. And there is no avoiding the fact that many roles will entail providing personal care. Promoting an unrealistic view of work in adult social care may lead to more younger people being ‘surprised and challenged’ by the nature of care work, which many participants said was a reason for them leaving.

Give the sector capacity and resources to tackle long-term workforce issues

The current reality of social care may make it difficult for many providers to find the space to develop and implement the sorts of changes required to more effectively recruit and retain young people. While vacancies remain high and fees low, it is harder for providers to take the sort of step back necessary to think through how best to change longstanding recruitment practices. The current government focus on overseas workers as the answer to the recruitment crisis, while welcome in the short term to alleviate immediate problems, does little to encourage a more long-term approach. A renewed national government focus on domestic recruitment, including on underrepresented groups such as young people and men, is essential if the sector is to fully respond to the opportunities, and challenges, of increasing the number of younger people in the adult social care workforce.

Upcoming work

The King’s Fund is currently carrying out interviews with younger people in the social care workforce to understand their experience of joining and working within adult social care. This research will be published in summer 2024.

Research methods