Case study

Changing patterns in the quality of work

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Author: Alan Felstead, University of Cardiff, Duncan Gallie of the University of Oxford, and Francis Greene of the Institute of Education, University of London.

Date: 17 May 2012

Type of case study: Research

About the research

Our working lives are changing. As the population ages, we are working later in life. Education from the secondary level to the postgraduate level is increasing the qualification level of the workforce. Our experience of work is becoming more diverse. Team-working is becoming more prevalent and on-the-job learning is becoming more varied. These changes have been tracked over the last two decades by a team of university researchers in Cardiff, Oxford and London.

Over this period they have been collecting and examining data which maps the level and distribution of skills requirements and the quality of working life, analysing the patterns that emerge and tracing how they have changed over time across the UK.

They discovered the following changes in the quality and patterns of work:

  • Older employees have been doing better in the workplace since the early 1990s, closing the skills gap with younger workers and maintaining leads in work intensity and job control. However, their loyalty to their employers (but not to the idea of employment) has declined.

  • Within the workplace, older employees are at a disadvantage compared to their younger co-workers when it comes to training. They often receive fewer opportunities for formal training, and when they do it is for shorter durations and of lower quality.

  • It is suggested that employee involvement is a requirement for up-skilling the workforce as the quality of this process is usually tied to the nature and extent of this involvement. This idea has been integrated into the policies of individual countries and international organisations such as the European Union.

  • While teamwork in the workplace expanded from the 1990s, it was primarily teamwork that gave employees little decision-making power, which in turn suppressed personal initiative and discretion at work.

  • In Wales, compared to the rest of Britain, the skill content of jobs is lower which helps to explain lower pay levels there. Trends suggest the skill content has declined where it has risen elsewhere in the UK.

About the data

This research drew from several datasets and surveys. It used the Skills Survey, 1997, Skills Survey, 2001 and Skills Survey, 2006 which cover the employed workforce of Great Britain (and the United Kingdom from 2006) and the extent to which employees had the skills required for their jobs. While these surveys were not designed as a series, continuity in the design of the questionnaire allows them to be used as such.

The researchers also used the Employment in Britain, 1992 survey which covers the British labour market. Participants were employed, self-employed or unemployed and aged between 20 and 60 in order to collect information on changes in employment over time and to provide data for cross-national analysis. Questions from this survey were later used in the Skills Surveys.

This work also used data from the Social Change and Economic Life Initiative Surveys, 1986-1987, which asked the British population about their attitudes on the changing employment market, including the state of unemployment, changes in the gender composition of the workforce and the increased use of casual labour.

In order to assess the patterns for older workers, the researchers used the Communities of Practice Survey, 2007, which asked people about their relationships at work, their training and how they rate their performance at work. They also used the Learning at Work Survey, 2004 which collected data about the often overlooked learning that takes place through everyday work, and to determine the importance of this in improving an employee's job performance and map the distribution of this type of learning across the workforce. Both these datasets were created out of another research project.


This research relied on a large number of individual-level surveys that asked similar questions over time. The researchers analysed the answers to the same questions asked in the various surveys at different points in time to track changing patterns in the quality of employment and the skills used in work. All the surveys focused on people in work with the data collected through face-to-face interviews. The resulting data were representative of those working in Britain at the time each survey was carried out.

Publications and outputs

Gallie, D., Zhou, Y., Felstead A., and Green F. (2012) 'Teamwork, skill development and employee welfare,' British Journal of Industrial Relations, 50(1), pp. 23-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8543.2010.00787.x Retrieved 4 September 2013 from

Felstead, A. (2011) 'The importance of "teaching old dogs new tricks": Training and learning opportunities for older workers,' in E. Parry and S. Tyson (eds.) Managing an age-diverse workforce, London: Palgrave.

Felstead, A. (2010) 'Closing the age gap? Age, skills and the experience of work in Great Britain', Ageing & Society, 30(8), pp.1293-1314. doi: 10.1017/S0144686X10000681

Felstead, A., Gallie, D., Green, F., and Zhou, Y. (2010) 'Employee involvement, the quality of training and the learning environment: An individual level analysis', International Journal of Human Resource Management, 21(10), pp.1667-1688. doi: 10.1080/09585192.2010.500489 Retrieved 4 September 2013 from

Felstead, A. (2009) 'Are jobs in Wales high skilled and high quality? Baselining the One Wales vision and tracking recent trends,' Contemporary Wales, 22(1), pp. 36-61.

Felstead, A., Gallie, D., Green, F., Zhou, Y. (2007) Skills at Work, 1986 to 2006, Project funded by ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisation Performance. Retrieved 4 September 2013 from

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