The PWFC project stemmed from an awareness that globally, young people are increasingly facing precarious work, such as internships and zero-hour contracts, as their first work experience. The growing “gig economy” has contributed to this precarious work. While there have been some policy responses to this trend in many European countries, in upper and lower-middle-income countries where youth unemployment rates are growing, such jobs are sometimes seen as a panacea – any job is better than no job.

However, there is little evidence in developing contexts to assess whether precarious early work experiences lead to later stable careers and if so, under what conditions. We, therefore, partnered with colleagues at Tianjin University and Glasgow University to assess this in China and South Africa.

We used panel data available in both countries to assess what happens to young people who engage in precarious work over time. The findings demonstrate that although rates of precarious work are lower in China than in South Africa, they are increasing. In both countries, early precarious work opportunities almost always act as a “dead-end” – young people struggle to transition to more stable forms of work and frequently drop into unemployment. We also found that education does act as a protective factor – those who did transition to more stable forms of work had higher levels of education.

There are policy implications of these findings. In both countries, the state has implicitly sanctioned precarious work. In China, this has been the result of reforms that promote China’s global economic competitiveness. In South Africa, while global competitiveness may also play a role, a strong policy imperative is the threat of unemployment, which has seen both the proliferation of training and entry-level precarious jobs to address youth unemployment. The employer benefits from this policy orientation, while employees have limited gains. There is thus a need to discuss policy approaches that curtail precarious work and protect employees, particularly those most at risk. Two policy briefs were developed: China Policy Brief | South Africa Policy Brief.

View the full research report here.