The Future of Work | EXODUS

With the world of work changing at such a rapid rate, we’re quickly approaching a fork in the road that’s bound to determine the future of humanity’s relationship with work. For those of us raised on Aldous Huxley and Suzanne Collins, the challenges presented by the world yet-to-come are endlessly fascinating.

How can we get a headstart on these coming problems? What are the most important skills for young professionals to develop right now? Should we be prepping our torches and pitchforks for the artificial intelligence of the future, or should we be more concerned about stagnant wages, discrimination and rising inequality?

In this series, based on Matthew Taylor and Fabian Wallace-Stephens’ research for the RSA, using detailed scenario modelling with leading engineers Arup, we’re going to examine the crossroads on the horizon, and explore a few threads from the multiverse of potential futures. 

Last week we discussed the future of work assuming we benefit from massive developments in technology. But all that research costs (a lot of) money, and if we’re surprised by a financial crash akin to the one that snuck up on us in 2008, our approach to work could take a very different path. 

It may be pessimistic, but as the Bank of England says:

“History shows that there are two things we can be sure of when it comes to financial crises: there will be another one, and the next one won’t be the same as the last.”

Concerning, but we’re currently enjoying global expansion; the US running large fiscal deficits, China’s pursuit of loose fiscal and credit policies, Europe continuing along a path of recovery. That said, some experts are predicting a financial crisis, followed by a global recession as soon as 2020.

So, what does this mean for the world of work? First, we’ll see protracted economic slowdown, leading to a rise in unemployment, which in turn will lead to new austerity measures. All of that automation we were looking forward to (or fervently dreading, depending on your approach to robot overlords) dries up with the innovation funding, but it’s too late to avoid getting trapped in a low-pay paradigm. Our low-skilled workers will just have to stay low-skilled, because those austerity measures won’t support retraining programmes. The UK sees a steep rise in agency work and zero-hours contracts as everybody bids to cut costs wherever they can.

Taylor and Wallace-Stephens’ predict an “age of resentment” as a result of the failing economic system. 20th century household names will be buried under a “flurry of M&A activity”. Workers will take to the streets in protests reminiscent of gilet jaunes. Unions will organise mass ‘log-offs’, beating down the gig economy. We’re likely to see urban areas empty, as many flee the cities in pursuit of self-sufficient lifestyles. The exodus economy may result in us losing faith in capitalism altogether, leading to the rise of alternative economy models and co-operatives emerging in large numbers to serve the population’s core needs: food, energy and banking.

From Dystopia to Utopia
As more of us turn to gig work and self-employment, we’ll need a new settlement that trades higher National Insurance rates for more protections. We need clearer rules for determining employment status and rights, and more effective enforcement to support them. Before capitalism falls, it could be a good idea to give workers a stake in the businesses and technology that are likely to become more profitable.

Unions should spend the next few years modernising. One way to do this is through changes to legislation, which might help reverse the atrophy in membership. Denmark has already enabled digital balloting – so we know it can be done. Another way to bring our Unions up-to-date is through partnerships with smaller worker voice outfits. Unions could offer new financial services, such as access to sick pay, as we’ve seen in the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the US.

The future economic insecurity the experts are predicting needs to be addressed, and one way to do this is to change the safety net we currently have in place. Universal Credit is a good idea in theory, but in practice it’s riddled with faults. Now is the time to iron those out, so we’ve got a short-term solution to an economic crisis, at least. While we’re leaning on that, we’ll have time to explore universal basic income, which is an even better idea with even more faults to fix. 

Across the board, we should see regulators aiming to address problems by working closely with employers, companies and stakeholders – a collaborative approach that Taylor and Wallace-Stephens call ‘shared regulation’.

Next in the series – The Precision Economy