Why are there more graduate bar staff than ever?

A CIPD report prompts David Kernohan to consider how graduates fit within the wider workforce.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

Graduates are a large and growing part of the population, but they are not evenly distributed.

While the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development can claim, accurately, that graduates are now 42 per cent of the UK workforce and that this has increased over time, we do need to unpack this a little.

A dash for growth

The rise in the number of graduates is one of the most notable demographic trends of our time. As recently as 2002, the figure was more like 23 percent.


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The proportion grows in two ways, older (non-graduate) workers leave the workforce, and newer (graduate) workers enter the workforce. Graduates, therefore, are more likely to be at the younger end of the spectrum.

We also know that, between the ages of 16 and 64 graduates are more likely to be employed than non-graduates (88 per cent of graduates are employed, compared to 69 per cent of no-graduates). So graduates will be over-represented proportionally in any job role.

A young person’s game

And, of course, we know that young people are more likely to be in certain kinds of employment than older people at any given survey point. For example, here’s data for England and Wales from the 2011 Census (we don’t yet have this for 2021, but it is fair to bet that the shape of these charts will be similar).

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You’ll note that getting on for half the bar relating to sales and customer service occupations is blue – showing employees under 34 years old.

Same again

Another way of looking at this is by industry – there is always a larger than usual chunk of young people working in hotels and restaurants. This is a time-series going back to 2004, and you can choose your age group of interest via the filter at the top.

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So – if we accept the proposition that, say, bar work is largely a young person’s game and we increase the proportion of young people that are graduates what’s going to happen to the proportion of graduates doing bar work?

That’s right – as CIPD observed – it is going to rise. Nineteen per cent of those doing bar work at the time the Labour Force Survey happened in 2022, compared to just 3 per cent in 1992. Which is a great stat to lead a Mail article with.

(The Mail unfortunately did not have space to note – as CIPD did – that 51 per cent of managers, directors, and senior officials are graduates in 2022, compared to 18 per cent in 1992).

Unexpected consequences

The whole premise of expanding the graduate population in the 1990s and 2000s was to bring about a “high skill economy”. One aspect that was always going to be better qualified people doing all kinds of jobs – in some cases (nursing is the canonical example) this means that the job is on average done more effectively.

It would be more difficult to make the case for graduate bar staff (a commentator on the Mail piece suggested that perhaps they would be more interesting to talk to!) but it would be very hard to see bar work as an outcome of degree level study – it could be characterised as a short-term way to earn money (or, as another example, to cover living expenses while in further study). Also – to be blunt – there are less bars. And those that survived the pandemic are disproportionately clustered in the kinds of large urban areas that young graduates tend to live.

The other CIPD examples are more interesting – we’ve seen a sharp rise in the proportion of graduate payroll managers, government administrators, bank clerks, nursing assistants, care workers, security guards, and personal assistants over the last 30 years too. In some cases this may be a sign of a shrinking job category due to automation and changing consumer practices (do we really still have as many payroll managers as we used to? Do we really have as many bank clerks?) meaning that the few that remain have a higher level of responsibility and thus a higher skill requirement.

In others the jobs themselves have changed – “security guards and related occupations” most likely now lean more towards the related occupation with the rise of technology in this sector – and we expect more from national government administrative staff in terms of IT and data literacy than we ever used to.

Have one yourself

I’m clearly just speculating at this point – each graduate journey is a personal story, and we can’t know what they are doing or why at this data resolution.

The one thing that you absolutely can’t argue from this data is that degrees are terrible. Graduates are more employable than ever before, and as the population expands we will find them using their skills – however temporarily – in all kinds of places. With the graduate population skewing young we’ll see an increasing number in “young person jobs”.

Whether or not we need graduates in certain roles is not the issue – by the laws of entropy and statistics there will be graduates (either temporarily or permanently) in any job role you care to name. The question is whether we celebrate the many and unexpected benefits of a higher skilled workforce – do call in to your local this evening and chat to the staff about it.

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