The future of work is full of pitfalls

EDITOR'S BLOG: From insecure gigs to automation and Brexit, there are challenging times ahead.

Last Updated: 13 Oct 2016

Showing she has an ever-so- slightly mercurial side as well as the no-nonsense version, Theresa May has appointed Matthew Taylor to chair a review into the world of Modern Work. This raised a few eyebrows among more suspicious members of her party because Taylor (an occasional MT contributor) was formerly head of Tony Blair’s policy unit. Currently head of the Royal Society of Arts he hardly appears to be a classic 2016 version of ‘One of Us.’ He has even dallied with the Scandi idea of a universal basic income in which both Corbyn and McDonnell have expressed an interest. But maybe ex-Blairites are more acceptable bedfellows currently than Cameroons and Osbornites.

Taylor set out his stall in The Guardian at the weekend writing: ‘More and more people are their own boss – the 4.8 million self-employed are a record. And more work is flexible, with 900,000 on zero hours contracts and a further 1.7 million in temporary work. Taken together that is around one in five British workers in what are, increasingly unhelpfully, described as "non-standard work arrangements". Few people think these trends will reverse, and many predict that traditional employment will eventually become a minority pursuit.

‘We know some of the causes of these changes. Business innovation, technological possibility and lifestyle preferences are combining. By and large, the flexibility is popular. Surveys consistently show that self-employed people are happier with their work than employees. About two-thirds of temporary workers choose to work temporarily, while the same proportion on zero-hours contracts do not want fixed hours; most report that they are happy with their work-life balance. But not everyone’s experience of new work is positive.’

The left has a well-practised and highly vocal case against the gig economy. Gigs come without pensions, sick pay, parental leave and holiday entitlement. They are highly precarious and there is little in the way of job security. But it’s not hard to see why May has encouraged a look at the difficulties - it all fits in with her concern for and political pitch to those many who are ‘just managing,’ for whom non-standard work arrangements are frequently the norm.

Read more: MT's future of work hub

However, what exactly can be done to improve the lot of such people isn’t clear. It’s hard to see many businesses, desperate to get their costs down, returning to final salary pensions and all those benefits that were formerly standard parts of the employment contract in the good old days of a job for life. Even virtuous companies such as M&S and John Lewis are tightening up on what’s offered. New recruits can rarely expect such a sweet deal as older members of the company.

Taylor will also have to look at the huge gulf in prospects and prosperity that has arisen between the generations. The young regard with envy the lot of the older and retired with their triple-lock pensions. They look ahead to the coming world of work and can feel very discouraged. Making sure that they become more engaged both in work and in politics is an important task for all of us.

These problems are dealt with by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott in their new book ‘The 100 Year Life.’ The London Business School authors make the simple and stark point that if your life expectancy is 100 - which it will be for increasing numbers born in wealthy societies - then you will need a pension that is 50% of your final salary which will require you to save roughly 10% of your wages every year. And even then you won’t be able to say stop and retire until your 80s. They also warn that even when you get to the point where you used to be able to hang up your employment boots and take it a bit easier recreation will become ‘re-creation.’ A spot of re-invention will be required to keep the wolf from the door. Does this mean desperadoes in their 70s being forced to make ends meet by tooling around on a Deliveroo bike?

And, of course, as with absolutely everything at the moment we have to ask how Brexit will affect the future of work in the UK. The unemployment rights that derive from EU law may well be discarded. There is now a deep concern across many industries - food processing and manufacturing, construction, the NHS - about how curtailing the freedom of movement from within the EU is likely to affect business. Migrants are often the ultimate giggers and if they either stop coming here or are actively prevented from doing so with specific work permits, visas or whatever is proposed this could be very bad news. With very low levels of unemployment is it possible that ‘indigenous’ Brits are going to take up the slack?

Read more: What will tomorrow's bosses be like? 

Andrea Leadsom - from whom we have heard little since her leadership bid - told ITV this wasn't a worry and that all those farmers needing their crops picking in Lincolnshire should not be concerned. "We could get British people doing those jobs and that tempts me to stray into the whole issue of why wages aren't higher and so on. My absolute hope is that with more apprenticeships, with more young people being encouraged to engage with countryside matters, that actually the concept of a career in food production is going to be much more appealing going forward." Maybe Andrea should be top of Matthew Taylor’s list for individuals to interview. They could talk countryside matters while pulling up potatoes or harvesting brussels sprouts outside Boston.

But surely the most likely outcome of a restriction in the supply of migrant farm labour is that the jobs they do now will simply not be done by people in the future, but by machinery. And that’s a trend not limited to the agricultural sector. Something else for the Taylor review to consider. Meanwhile, here's what we think the world of work could look like in 2066. 

Image source: Joseph Mischyshyn/Geograph


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