Four futures of work: consequences for the Scottish skills system

By Fabian Wallace-Stephens

Last year DeepMind, a pioneer of deep learning, announced that one of its healthcare algorithms could detect more than 50 eye diseases as accurately as a trained doctor. Elsewhere, the first 3D-printed concrete house was constructed in just 24 hours. Against this backdrop of frequent breakthroughs in radical technologies there is a growing consensus that we need to do more to help workers navigate the shifting sands of the labour market.

But what skills will they need in the future? And how should educators, employers and policy makers respond?

Preparing for the future is no easy task. To help decision makers think more laterally about the future of work, the RSA developed four scenarios for the future of work in 2035. We identified high-impact, highly uncertain drivers of change and then explored the different ways these critical uncertainties could play out over time and how they could interact with each other.

To explore these questions in the context of the future of skills and learning in Scotland, the RSA partnered with Skills Development Scotland to convene a series of workshops in Glasgow with learning providers, employers, policy makers and trade unions, to engage with our four scenarios in a series of collaborative discussions.

We wanted to ground the scenarios in the lived experiences of practitioners, to generate new insights about the future challenges and opportunities for skills and learning in Scotland. Our ultimate aim was to produce versions of the scenarios that could better inform a vision for the Scottish skills system in 2035.

Here we unpack the discussions we had about the consequences each scenario could have for skills and learning in Scotland.

The Big Tech Economy

Rapid advancements in new technologies have displaced both blue- and white-collar jobs in the Scottish economy. Driverless tractors plough fully automated farms. Machine learning algorithms outperform professionals in finance and insurance. Major cities see the most significant disruption, while remote rural areas see few upgrades to their infrastructure beyond the odd delivery drone.

Scotland’s public sector shrinks as tech companies usher in an era of privatisation 4.0, delivering higher quality public services at a lower cost, while businesses in Scotland’s strategic growth industries (e.g. life sciences, finance, digital, energy) also struggle to compete with the tech giants. The same is true for many of Scotland’s SMEs and micro businesses who find themselves unable to afford new technologies or invest in skills.

Unemployment has reached record highs. Workers need to reskill to exit declining industries en masse. While there has been growth in hi-tech roles — such as machine learning or robotics engineers, alongside supporting ‘agile’ project management roles — opportunities to transition are limited. Those who don’t achieve big tech stardom are lucky to find 20 hours a week of work, performing one of a few menial tasks that robots cannot. Their economic security is somewhat tempered by free high-quality public services, cheap consumer goods and an abundance of leisure time.

The consensus among participants was that it is crucial not to overestimate the amount of change that this (or any) scenario would bring, as many jobs that exist today would persist in some form even in quite a radically different world. For example, several participants challenged the idea that all jobs would involve coding. As one suggested “there will be big ecosystems surrounding tech” which could encompass a range of jobs, such as providing legal advice and support. However, workers in these roles would need to upskill to stay on top of technological developments and the legal implications of new technologies such as driverless cars. Participants felt there would need to be a role for people who know “how to ‘translate’ technology” to meet broader societal objectives. This scenario could see the emergence of jobs in techno-ethics that “encourage big companies to play by the rules”.

Participants identified two other types of broad skillsets needed for the Big Tech Economy. While everyone would need a basic level of digital literacy, there would also be demand for technical skills, for example, in machine learning or cybersecurity. But technologists would need a range of meta-skills — such as resilience, adaptability, self-motivation and a growth mindset — as technology would be moving at such a fast past that they would have to frequently upskill.

There was a recognition that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) would become increasingly important in this scenario. As one participant put it, “STEM is available, but it needs to be [taught] from early years.” One clear risk here is that the Big Tech Economy will be ruled by ‘tech bros’ if the current trend towards a lack of female representation in these technology roles continues. Participants argued that to equip learners with the right balance of technical and meta-skills, we would need to get more vocational learning into the curriculum and “move away from the old-fashioned exam factory approach”. Participants also discussed the potential of specific technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, noting these are already being used to train construction site apprentices on health and safety.

In the Big Tech Economy scenario, the skills system will itself be radically transformed by technologies. One provocation RSA researchers put to participants was that this scenario would result in significant automation of teaching staff in colleges and universities, with lecturers replaced by holograms of Harvard professors and course curricula defined by world-leading Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This divided participants. Some felt that this was already playing out in remote rural areas. As one participant put it, “in the Western Isles, electronic teachers are already here.” Many doubted the credibility of an education system without any face-to-face learning and suggested that online learning would be blended with traditional classroom-based methods. This scenario may result in more of a ‘hollowing out’ of jobs in universities; for example, while immersive technologies may replace the need for mid-ranking university professors, there would continue to be a need for teaching assistants to support learners and facilitate seminar discussions.

Who funds education in this scenario? The consensus view among participants was that employers would need to be more financially involved in the provision of learning. Amazon Career Choice is an example of this already happening: it offers workers a range of different on-site courses and covers 95 percent of tuition costs. However, some participants raised concerns about whether global technology companies would really invest in local talent. In this scenario it is also possible that new financing models will be imported from Silicon Valley — like the Lambda School, where workers pay a percentage of their earnings only if they land a high-paying job.

Participants suggested there would be a need for a “Job Centre 2.0” in this scenario, where employment advisors could use platforms that leverage AI and labour market data to offer personalised coaching to displaced workers. Bob by Bayes Impact is one example of this kind of platform. It uses a chatbot interface to offer free tailored support to help workers find opportunities in growth industries in their local area.

The Big Tech Economy risks leaving many behind. Participants were particularly concerned about older workers, who may struggle to adapt to these changes but will be expected to work until their mid-70s due to increases in the state pension age. While it was suggested that this scenario would be good for productivity and “have spillover effects that boost business growth beyond the obvious tech firms”, some participants raised concerns about the wider social implications. As one suggested, “tourism in Scotland already has a big tech dynamic in some places — [the] Airbnb model has led to growth but is dominated by bigger new players; this has caused inequality and housing affordability issues.” Questions were also raised about whether remote rural areas would be able to get supporting infrastructure such as broadband networks in place “when they’ve been struggling on that for decades”.

The Empathy Economy

Technological breakthroughs come thick and fast but public attitudes turn sour as risks become apparent. Faced with a looming regulatory crackdown, tech companies decide to self-regulate. Industrial strategy deals — including in low-productivity sectors such as hospitality — have enabled employers to harness the benefits of new technologies and adopt them in a way that responsibly balances productivity and good work. Dirty, dull and dangerous parts of people’s jobs are automated as technology augments their capabilities: from virtual reality being used in retail to role-play customer interactions, to personal trainers using wearables to create bespoke training regimes for clients.

Scotland’s strategic growth industries fulfil their potential. The nation sees a successful transition to green energy and a prosperous domestic tech industry. Edinburgh is a world-leading fintech hub, attracting talent from London and further afield. Glasgow produces a series of successful data science start-ups. As productivity and pay increase, disposable income flows into ‘empathy’ sectors and services such as social care, education, entertainment and tourism. Scottish micro-businesses also thrive as consumers place a premium on artisan products and authentic experiences. But some ‘empathy’ jobs can be emotionally demanding, with people required to manage their emotions in the service of boosting others.

The Empathy Economy was considered the most positive scenario by participants. Some compared it to Estonia, where a phased roll-out of technology and an education programme has reduced the digital divide. In this scenario, technology disrupts people’s working lives significantly but, unlike in the Big Tech Economy, there are sufficient opportunities to transition into new roles.

However, participants raised concerns about the capacity of the current skills system to keep up with the rapidly increasing demand for retraining needed to transition to the Empathy Economy. As one participant suggested, “this scenario might be aspirational and desirable — but we don’t think it’s achievable within the current system. This would potentially require retraining large amounts of education staff — a sizable shift for Scotland’s university and college sector. We would need to gear up ScotGov and public services too. This could be a massive, expensive shift.”

There was a consensus that there would need to be a joined-up approach here — that the Scottish government would need to work in partnership with employers, unions, colleges, universities and training bodies. Alongside support to upskill and reskill, participants felt workers at risk of technological disruption would need “good advice that is specific to them and their local area: practical answers about how this will affect them, what steps they can take to mitigate risks and what opportunities are available to them regarding learning, skills and employment.” In Sweden, job security councils (or Trygghetsråden) provide displaced workers with an end-to-end transition service that includes career coaching, financial compensation and training or business start-up support to help workers find new jobs. In this scenario, the Scottish government could look to provide a similar package of support.

Participants agreed that demand for teaching roles would increase dramatically in this scenario, but argued that we would also need to do more to improve the status of these jobs. As one participant suggested, “the current salary does not reflect value for the work and is therefore not an attractive option.” Others added that getting people with tech skills into teaching was a particular challenge because “they face a much bigger trade-off”. New technologies could be used to help improve job design, with one participant citing the example of AI being used to mark students’ tests in China and free up teachers’ time to focus on the human side of teaching.

From coding to caring to carpentry, the jobs on offer in this scenario have very different skills requirements. Participants felt that people would need to develop a core set of skills such as emotional intelligence, creativity, problem solving and communication. But they added that “the skills you need in the Empathy Economy can’t be taught in the classroom and definitely can’t be taught online.” Participants argued that “more real-world engagement is required throughout the curriculum and at an even earlier age” and suggested that learning providers could work more directly with employers to deliver learning experiences that pair technical skills with social skills. Participants suggested that these experiences could be collated in “learning portfolios” that could eventually replace traditional qualifications.

Participants were concerned about the consequences this scenario could have for rural areas. As one said, “The far north (Highlands and Islands) will struggle. How can we make sure the Empathy Economy […] works for rural areas?”. This scenario envisions increasing urbanisation. As technology automates manual occupations, such as van drivers or factory operatives, some workers in these roles could see themselves forced to uproot and move to one of Scotland’s major cities in search of work. Workers might also struggle with this transition because of gender stereotypes. As one participant stated, “culturally, empathy is still seen as very female. This will take time to breakdown; it is on its way but has a long way to go.”

The Precision Economy

Technology advances at a steady pace, but ambitious projects such as autonomous vehicles are abandoned. The Internet of Things is prolific, with Scottish businesses installing sensors across their supply chains. Precision agriculture, intelligent supermarkets and smart factories are now commonplace. Smart cities, towns and hamlets bring about improvements in healthcare, policing and environmental management. The relative affordability of this technology has ensured that Scottish businesses, including SMEs, remain competitive.

The impacts of automation are modest, mostly contained to routine occupations. Back office roles in sectors like finance experience the greatest decline. As managerial roles grow, new roles emerge in ‘people analytics’ combining the latest behavioural insights with data science. Coding and blockchain remain some of the most in-demand talents.

Workers are subject to a new level of algorithmic oversight, with a ratings system now pervasive. Gig economy platforms enter new sectors — including health, retail and hospitality — as firms have a better picture of who they need, at what times and at what skill level. This results in an increasingly polarised labour market. Work-life balance and pay are improved for ‘in-demand’ professionals who can more optimally allocate their labour. Others are left to battle it out for piecemeal work that does not pay well and offers little control over working hours or task discretion.

The Precision Economy envisions the widespread adoption of digital badges: micro-credentials that provide employers with a new way to recognise and validate skills, including those developed through on-the-job learning.

Participants argued that digital badges could address several problems with the current system of qualifications in Scotland. For example, digital badges would ensure that there is “less of a mismatch between what employers want and the skills young people have”. Participants suggested that there is currently “a language problem”, but that digital badges would allow people to “recognise the skills they did not know they had” and better “tell the story of what they’ve done”.

Participants felt that traditional qualifications such as university degrees create barriers that exclude some people from entering certain occupations — whereas digital badges could facilitate a shift to hiring people based on their competencies. Participants saw a role for new recruitment processes in this scenario: Knack is one example of a platform that uses behavioural science algorithms to match people with jobs based on the completion of games, rather than on their education or background. However, participants stressed the importance of ensuring that new recruitment systems don’t replicate existing historical biases.

Participants also suggested that the current system of qualifications does not adequately recognise many forms of work-based learning. This is critical because “those most disengaged in education tend to be most engaged in work-based learning.” Digital badges could help create “parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications”, with the latter often providing many of the skills that employers are looking for.

However, some learning providers could face a challenge in adapting to this shift. While some of Scotland’s finest management schools and vocational training providers would likely be involved in developing digital badge schemes, this scenario could result in an ‘unbundling’ of university degrees. This would largely be driven by learners who would instead opt for modular courses that could be completed part-time while they work. As one participant put it, “learning will be on-demand, bite-sized, as and when is needed”. To ensure that learning providers are responsive to the needs of a changing labour market, participants suggested “there would need to be a better interface between education and industry.”

One concern participants had with this scenario was that gig economy workers would lack opportunities to engage in training. As one participant put it, “platforms won’t be motivated to invest in learning”. Another suggested that the Scottish government “would need to level the playing field in terms of access and investment in provision.” There was a discussion about whether Individual Training Accounts (ITAs) — which currently entitle some Scottish workers in low paid jobs to £200 per year for work-related training courses — should be extended to all workers, including the self-employed. One participant pointed out that “ITA parameters have got tighter but demand is there [from self-employed workers]”.

Some participants questioned how useful technical skills such as computer programming or data science would be and how many new jobs would be created in these roles. One participant gave the example of DOS (Disk Operating System) — a programming language that became an interface, resulting in an entire skillset being made redundant.

However, participants agreed that data literacy would become critical. As one participant put it, “people don’t understand data. We need to give them the tools to help this.” Others suggested there would be analytics platforms to help people understand how data is used to make decisions about them. But people would also need to be able to critically engage with statistical concepts and make effective decisions based on data. Part of the solution here could be new educational courses — from early years to university.

Exodus economy

An economic recession in Scotland raises unemployment levels and leads to new austerity measures. Automation is limited, but few new jobs are created as businesses struggle to invest in new technology or skills development. Scotland is stuck in a low pay, low productivity paradigm.

Strategic growth industries struggle to fulfil their potential. Weakened domestic firms merge in a bid to find economies of scale, or are bought out from overseas investors. Unscrupulous employment practices, formerly common in sectors such as construction, are now widespread. Businesses are forced to turn to zero-hours contracts and ‘bogus’ self-employment. The dream of a prosperous home-grown tech industry is long forgotten, along with similar aspirations for a renewable energy sector. Scotland’s public sector employment shrinks, and job losses are felt in sectors underpinned by consumer spending such as retail and hospitality.

Disgruntled with ebbing living standards, many workers take to the streets, bringing the economy to a standstill. Calls for a new independence referendum dominate the airwaves. Others seek out a different way of living, leaving the cities in droves for a better life in rural areas. To keep up with growing demand from young professionals working in the knowledge economy, the Scottish government invests heavily in the development of towns outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Local co-operatives and independent businesses meet their everyday needs.

The Exodus Economy was described as “the most bleak” of the RSA’s four scenarios and were particularly concerned about its impact on workers. As one suggested that “even fallback jobs would disappear” and another added that “it will reduce [workers’] bargaining power — large corporations can exploit this in how they set the terms and conditions.”

One provocation RSA researchers put to participants was that, due to a lack of public sector funding, universities would no longer be able to offer free courses and many would be forced to close or consolidate, with the government instead focusing its limited resources on vocational training. Participants agreed, suggesting that “funding will be rebalanced and will be allocated to meet the needs of the economy.” Conversely, some were concerned that the system could collapse. As one participant said: “the current funding model is unsustainable. It’s mostly public sector but we need other sources of income. An unsustainable system is no longer sustained in this scenario.”

The Exodus Economy was described as “a chaos situation” in which the government would have “a very sharp focus in a few areas”. One participant suggested that there would need to be a new agency to help with strategic thinking, which would “focus on skills planning to determine where to direct learning” and “link employers more directly into the education system”. Some participants were concerned that “as education becomes more niche, we will lose broader provision.” One suggested that “funding is already drying up — it’s focused on STEM, not arts or humanities.” However, others felt that one positive here was that “there will be more opportunities for work-based learning and apprenticeships”, which would benefit many people who are not well suited to academic study.

The decline of universities in this scenario could also be driven by learners widely rejecting degrees which have failed to deliver on the promise of well-paid jobs. The Exodus Economy envisions a movement towards D.I.Y. upskilling; for example, through peer learning groups that support each other using resources such as MOOCs. Participants suggested that there would be a new job role for a “personal journey guide” who would help facilitate these groups.

One example of this type of initiative is Enrol Yourself, which hosts local peer groups that support adults at times of transition by building their personal and professional resilience. Participants set their own learning questions, which they pursue with the help of a mutually supporting group, aided by online resources. Enrol Yourself provides motivation and different perspectives, without the need for enrolling at an educational institution.

Participants suggested that Scottish learning providers could play a role in developing resources for peer learning groups. As one suggested, “free online courses which are global may not be suitable for Scotland-specific issues. MOOCs will never know how to navigate the skills landscape in rural areas — people who live there will.” Another added that “an insane amount of work goes into creating MOOCs. Not just the development, but also the maintenance of these tools.” Participants also felt that universities could become “hubs to learn” by providing these groups with physical spaces and “giving them an identity”.

Participants argued that resilience, adaptability, creativity, resourcefulness and perseverance would be critical attributes in this scenario; while business acumen, skilled trades and other aptitudes that enable self-sufficiency would also become increasingly valuable. However, participants suggested that many workers would feel “dejected”, stuck in low-paid jobs in increasingly deprived urban areas. The Exodus Economy illustrates why we need to do more to professionalise career paths for low-skilled workers, but the chaotic nature of this scenario suggests that the Scottish government may have little bandwidth to support them here.

Future-proofing the Scottish skills system

The obvious question is ‘which one of these scenarios is most likely?’.

But the scenarios aren’t designed to be complete predictions. While the future remains uncertain, it’s plausible to suggest that the Scottish skills system in 2035 will probably have some characteristics of all four scenarios. The real question for the Scottish skills system now is how can it harness the opportunities the scenarios present and mitigate the risks?

We have outlined seven challenges for Skills Development Scotland to consider as they continue to develop a vision for the future of skills and learning in Scotland:

1. Reskilling workers at risk of automation. In both Big Tech and Empathy many workers are displaced by new technologies. How can employers, learning providers and other actors in the Scottish skills system work together to provide these workers with the support they need to transition into new roles in growth industries?

2. Finding the teachers of the future. As illustrated by the Empathy Economy, to keep up with increasing demand for retraining, Scotland will need more high-quality teachers. How can technology be used to improve their experience of work? And what experiences will they need to equip learners with skills for the future? What role is there for people outside of teaching professions to support learning and development?

3. Delivering high-quality learning experiences. Digital badges in the Precision Economy, MOOCs in the Exodus: how can the Scottish skills system harness the opportunity presented by new technologies to support a rich learning experience, alongside other teaching methods such as project-based learning and mentoring?

4. Supporting economically insecure workers. In the Precision Economy gig workers may lack funds to upskill. In the Exodus Economy there is a clear need to professionalise low-skilled occupations. How can we ensure these workers have access to adequate training opportunities?

5. Rethinking funding of skills and learning. In the Exodus Economy there is a risk that the system could collapse. In Empathy there is a need to transform, which could prove expensive. Who should be responsible for the cost of learning and how can we rethink funding accordingly?

6. Ensuring a responsive skills system. This was a common theme across all scenarios. How can we better understand how the labour market is changing? What role can data play here? What will it take to create a better “interface” between employers and learning providers? Do learners need more exposure to the real world of work?

7. Balancing demand for technical skills with the need for new mindsets. Computer programmers in Big Tech, care workers in Empathy and behavioural analysts in Precision: our scenarios envision growth in different types of roles. But the future is uncertain, so how can we equip learners with meta-skills such as adaptability, resilience and a growth mindset?

The future is ours to create. But to ensure Scotland’s businesses and people thrive in the future, Skills Development Scotland will need to work collaboratively with other actors in the Scottish skills system to develop solutions to these challenges. We hope to continue to be part of this process — to ensure a future of good work in Scotland.

Find out more about the RSA’s Future Work Centre




We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.

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