More power to elite managers in workforce of the future?

A polarisation in the workforce by 2020 would benefit managers - but could exclude nearly 1m people.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What will the UK workforce look like in 2020? That’s the topic of an interesting new paper by Friends Provident, which suggests we may see a polarisation into two distinct groups: a privileged elite of knowledge workers, whose relative scarcity will give them much greater power, and an underclass of ‘excluded’ workers (mostly young men), with nothing much to shout about. Since employers will have to work much harder to find, attract and engage these elite staff, that’s good news for the lucky few – but it’s going to present employers with a real HR headache...

The elite workers will be sitting pretty by 2020, according to FP (which has teamed up with the Future Foundation for its foray into crystal-ball-gazing). The theory is that the UK economy will become increasingly weighted towards knowledge-based services, but we just won’t have enough skilled staff to deliver them. That means the lucky few – workers in technical, professional and managerial roles – will be in short supply; so they’ll be able to demand a higher salary, better benefits and a greater degree of professional fulfilment (since this is apparently their top priority). All of which are good, right?

However, it’s a very different story for the excluded. This growing underclass – which, according to the workplace experts consulted for this study, will mostly be young, semi-skilled males from the C2DE social class – will find themselves facing ‘poor prospects and limited expectations’. FP reckons this is principally about attitude; it found that whereas the potential elite were flexible, motivated and showed a thirst for knowledge, the potential excluded were apathetic, resistant to change and complacent (nearly 60% expected an annual salary increase every year, for example – although we suppose you could argue they’re just optimists…). But this degree of exclusion will be bad for those affected, and could leave UK plc facing a skills shortage.

The good news, FP suggests, is that if the difference between these two groups comes down to attitude and choices, it isn’t insurmountable; i.e. the potential excluded have the chance to break into the elite category over the next decade. So as well as working hard to attract and retain the future elite (with all their extra bargaining power), HR departments may need to think about trying to recruit and train people from the potentially excluded category too. A tricky task indeed.

We’re inclined to be a little sceptical about the extent to which this division is purely about attitude; after all, it must also have a lot to do with more entrenched social issues like poverty and educational standards. But this report does at least make the important point that firms may have to cast their net a little wider to find the managers of the future.

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