Work in progress
Our working lives seem to be changing faster than ever before; we need to find ways to promote good work and prepare to meet the challenges ahead.
By Matthew Taylor and Fabian Wallace-Stephens
Matthew Taylor is Chief Executive of the RSA; Fabian Wallace-Stephens is a Researcher in the RSA’s Future Work Centre
It is now getting on for two years since Theresa May joined me at the RSA to launch the final report of the inquiry into modern employment practices. It has been a long and mainly grim 18 months in UK politics, yet the progress made since the publication of my report shows that good things can happen even when everything else seems to be falling apart.
In the end the government committed to implementing all but two of my recommendations. Some of them did not need legislation — for example, a consultation on strengthening the protection of workers on parental leave — and have been acted upon. Others, such as abolishing a loophole that allowed employers to pay agency workers less, and guaranteeing all workers a basic statement on terms and conditions on day one of their employment, are currently going smoothly through parliament.
The big question of employment status — whether, for example, taxi drivers and parcel couriers should be classed as workers or self-employed — requires primary legislation and will take a lot longer to turn into even draft legislation.
“Improving quality of work is an accepted national goal”
Perhaps more than any of the individual recommendations, I have been most pleased by the way the idea of ‘Good Work’ (the title of the inquiry’s report) seems to have changed the terms of debate.
Just a few years ago, when I worked in government, to talk about quality of work was seen as a luxury and a distraction from the much more important question of making sure there were enough jobs to go round.
Obviously, the buoyant labour market has helped, but now improving quality of work is an accepted national goal. If I did not have the RSA to run, I could be on the road speaking at conferences about the subject almost every day. I have been appointed to the government’s Industrial Strategy Council in part to ensure that work quality is included in that strategy.
The RSA is undertaking a project with Carnegie UK Trust to explore the relationship between job quality and productivity. One of the reasons that I was asked to conduct the inquiry was the RSA’s excellent research on self-employment and the gig economy. The impressive and growing programme of our Future Work Centre means I have support to do further work on some of the recommendations that need further pushing.
One example is industrial partnership. Of all the recommendations, perhaps the one I had to push for hardest was to lower the threshold for workers to have rights to company information and consultation (and therefore, implicitly, to representation). This has now gone from 10% of all workers, which was both tough to achieve and anyway the same as for trade union recognition, to just 2%. What is needed now is a campaign to encourage both workers and employers to take this small but significant step towards partnership at work. The RSA will be working with a range of actors to develop such a campaign.
Another idea that needs backing is for the government to develop a national employability framework. There is a broad and growing consensus that what are sometimes called ‘life’ or ‘soft’ skills are as important, if not more important, to employers and individuals as qualifications based on academic subject and knowledge.
There are tough questions to answer about whether capabilities such as creativity or problem-solving are transferable from one domain to another, about how they are taught and about how they can be accredited. We should aim for a world in which every person has a continuously evolving digital portfolio that records not only their formal qualifications but the capabilities they have demonstrated through training, working, volunteering and wider life experience. But the revolution cannot even begin while we have hundreds of slightly different and competing employability frameworks. The RSA will be working with partners to take forward this agenda.
All in all, the inquiry is a success story. But I am absolutely certain it will not be the only way the RSA’s research and convening power makes a difference to the quality of working life. With technology continuing to have a huge impact, it is vital that, with reports like our excellent Four Futures of Work, the RSA stays at the centre of the debate.
I will now hand you over to Fabian, to go into more detail about our current work in this area.
Four futures of work
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, additive manufacturing enabled the first 3D-printed concrete house (taking just 24 hours to construct).
Breakthroughs in radical technologies capable of disrupting whole industries seem to be coming thick and fast. With livelihoods at stake, there is a growing sense of urgency for positive action to safeguard a future of good work.
The RSA’s Future Work Centre was born out of this need. Our Four Futures of Work report marks our attempt to look into the future, highlight the challenges workers may face come 2035, and start to offer policy and practice interventions as potential remedies.
Predicting the future is no easy task. The standard fare from think tanks and consultancies is to make predictions about the number of jobs at risk from automation. These range from concerning to comforting, from 35% (University of Oxford) to just under 5% (McKinsey Global Institute).
With methodological guidance from Arup’s Foresight team, the RSA opted for an approach known as scenario planning. Pioneered by oil giant Shell in the 1970s, scenario planning is a tool to help decision-makers prepare for multiple eventualities. It involves identifying high-impact, highly uncertain drivers of change, and then exploring the different ways these ‘critical uncertainties’ could play out over time and how they could interact with each other.
Unlike predictions about automation that focus on job losses, our scenarios consider a broader range of effects that technologies could have on labour markets. For example, how internet of things devices such as wearables could lead to an increase in workplace monitoring. Or how big data could lead to the emergence of gig economy platforms in new sectors.
Crucially, our scenarios factor in technological diffusion, considering not only how these technologies could develop in controlled environments, but also whether they will actually be adopted by businesses. Driverless cars may never overcome regulatory roadblocks, while cybersecurity risks could spur a public backlash against a whole suite of technologies.
Our four scenarios handle this uncertainty in a way that numerical predictions cannot. They also recognise other influential forces at play, such as the health of the global economy and the future of the worker voice. On the one hand, membership of traditional trade unions has been falling since the 1970s, but on the other an alternative movement is gathering steam, including new unions for the self-employed and gig workers.
While the four scenarios identified (the Big Tech Economy, the Precision Economy, the Exodus Economy and the Empathy Economy) are not exhaustive portrayals of the future, they present a wide range of plausible outcomes in a way that is vivid and easy to grasp.
Ultimately, we hope they provide those in positions of responsibility with a practical tool to help prepare today’s workforce for tomorrow’s workplace, whether that is civil servants in the Treasury advising on changes to tax policy, or further education college leaders questioning how their curricula should evolve to meet new skill demands.
Future Work Centre
Above all, these scenarios remind us that, whatever futurists may speculate about the singularity, right now and for the foreseeable future it is human beings, not algorithms, who will decide whether technology will make our lives better or worse.
The Future Work Centre is now turning its attention to the question of what policy and practice reforms are needed to enable a future of good work. By this autumn we will have developed a blueprint for a new social contract geared towards this end.
Our Four Futures of Work report lays the groundwork for this, and our Fellowship have already been making significant contributions through their various networks. The Reinventing Work Network, for instance, shares progressive, human-centred workplace and work–life philosophies and practices.
“To address economic insecurity, we need to rethink our safety net for the 21st century.”
Four futures of work
The Big Tech Economy
This describes a world where technology has developed at a rapid pace, leading to widespread automation. Self-driving buses, vans and bin lorries have reserved lanes in major cities. Versatile robots, capable of complex tasks and human interaction, have become ubiquitous in sectors such as hospitality and healthcare. Unemployment and economic insecurity have crept upwards, with people lucky to find 20 hours of work a week. But this is tempered by widely felt improvements in living standards as technology lowers the cost of everyday goods and improves the quality of public services, and as people find new outlets for meaning and purpose in their considerable leisure time. The ultimate winners are the Silicon Valley tech giants Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, which not only complete their capture of the digital economy but enter new sectors, hoovering up the profits from productivity growth and transferring them overseas. The dizzying pace of technological change leaves workers and unions incapable of responding, and well-oiled PR machines and highly visible corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes help the tech giants to stifle dissent.
The Exodus Economy
This is characterised by a protracted economic slowdown, after a financial crash on the scale of 2008 takes the world by surprise. Unemployment rises and leads to new austerity measures. Automation is limited, as funding for innovation has dried up, but the UK is trapped in a low-pay, low-productivity paradigm. There is a rise in zero-hours contracts and agency work as firms bid to cut costs. Many household names, once captains of industry in the 20th century, go under or are subsumed in a flurry of M&A activity. This is the age of resentment. Disgruntled with a failing economic system, workers take to the streets in gilets jaunes style protests. Unions organise mass ‘log-offs’, bringing the gig economy to its knees. Others leave urban areas altogether in search of alternative lifestyles. New economic models gather interest as co-operatives emerge in large numbers to serve people’s core needs in food, energy and banking.
The Precision Economy
This portrays a world of hyper-surveillance. In this scenario, many technologies have failed to live up to their hype, with ambitious projects such as autonomous vehicles abandoned altogether. The internet of things proves to be definitive, with businesses installing sensors across their supply chains. Automation is modest, but workers are subject to new levels of algorithmic oversight and a pervasive ratings system. On the shop floor in retail, for example, in-store sensors collect data on footfall while wearables track staff activity. Manager-analysts then review metrics and assign ratings following shift competition. Equipped with predictive algorithms and real-time organisational data, employers embrace on-demand labour strategies. Waves of ‘Uberisation’ ripple across the economy as gig platforms enter new sectors. Workers with in-demand talents or high ratings see enhanced pay and opportunities for progression. But many are left to battle it out for piecemeal work that does not pay well, and offers little control over working hours and minimal task discretion. Clever UX (user experience), gamification and the promise of upward mobility keeps workers logged in.
The Empathy Economy
This envisions a future of responsible stewardship. Under this scenario there are technological breakthroughs comparable to those in the Big Tech Economy, but public attitudes sour as the risks become more apparent. Tech companies decide to self-regulate. Automation is contained as businesses work with unions to adopt tech on mutually beneficial terms. Rather than squeeze, pressure and scrutinise workers, technology is applied to augment their capabilities, from virtual reality being used by retail workers to role-play customer interactions, to personal trainers using wearables to create bespoke training regimes for their clients. Workers see improvements in living standards as the gains from productivity growth are mostly retained in the UK. Disposable income then flows into high-touch sectors such as care and education, which are most resistant to automation. But this work is emotionally demanding, with people required to manage their own emotions in the service of boosting the feelings of others.
A safety net for the 21st Century
Workers will need to find ways of upskilling and reskilling themselves, whether this means moving into high-tech or high-touch roles, or finding their current job transformed. More robust lifelong learning programmes are necessary.
Personal Learning Accounts, currently being piloted in France and Singapore, could give every worker, self-employed and employee alike, funds to reskill. But we also need to realise that not everyone will be able to enter a flashy new tech job. Low-skilled work will persist, so we need to consider how people can also develop within these roles. Occupational licensing would be one way to bestow more status upon these jobs and potentially raise earning power.
To address economic insecurity, we need to rethink our safety net for the 21st century.
In the short term, this will mean ironing out the faults of Universal Credit, while in the medium term we must continue to explore the potential of universal basic income through rigorous pilots.
We also need a new settlement for the self-employed (including gig workers) that would see them pay higher rates of National Insurance in return for more protections. And to the extent that capital becomes more important as a source of income, we will also need to give workers a stake in the businesses and technology that are becoming more profitable, potentially through sovereign wealth funds.
In an ever-changing labour market, unions will need to modernise to stay relevant. Changes to legislation could help to reverse the atrophy in membership, for example by enabling digital balloting as they do in Denmark.
But unions should also consider partnering with, and potentially funding, smaller worker voice outfits. Unions could even begin offering new financial services, drawing on examples such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance in the US, which developed a portable benefits platform, Alia, to give domestic workers access to sick pay.
Just as unions need to become more agile, so it is with regulation. As the emergence of gig platforms has revealed, we need clearer rules for determining employment status and rights, as well as more effective enforcement.
GDPR may also need to be strengthened, including through a new right to data portability for gig workers that enables them to move their ratings across platforms.
At a macro level, we need more robust competition policy to reign in the power of superstar firms. In every case, regulators should aim to address problems by working hand-in-hand with employers, tech companies and other stakeholders, a collaborative approach the RSA has called ‘shared regulation’.
The Future Work Centre is about more than developing flagship ideas for social reform. In our pilot sector lab, which draws on the service design expertise of RSA Lab, we are working directly with employers in the retail sector to understand their challenges and provide them with strategies to help ensure workers can benefit from oncoming disruption.
One idea to emerge, particularly suitable for the Empathy Economy, is an upskilling programme for shop-floor workers, which focuses on equipping them with high-touch customer service skills and developing their aptitude to interact with new technologies such as robotics.
The centre is hoping to develop the field of WorkerTech and other social innovations that are improving the lives of workers. To this end, the Future Work Awards 2018/19 identified 28 of the most pioneering examples from around the world. These align with the pillars of the new social contract we outlined earlier, demonstrating that we can look to the grassroots as well as government for responses to the changing world of work.
For example, campaign group OUR Walmart launched WorkIt, an app that leverages AI to augment the expertise of trained advisers and provide low-wage workers with information on their workplace rights. With more than 15,000 users, WorkIt was a key tool in a campaign that has resulted in 500,000 Walmart employees receiving a significant increase in paid family leave.
Pursuit, a tech-training programme based in Queens, New York, has enabled hundreds of workers from low-income communities to upskill as computer programmers, raising their income from $18,000 to $85,000, on average.
Portify, a fintech company that leverages open banking to provide gig workers with alternative credit-scoring, has worked with platforms to reach 30,000 users. It offers them a range of financial services to address economic insecurity, including emergency credit when their bank balance runs critically low.
The RSA will continue to support this field, not only through the next Future Work Awards but also through our Economic Security Impact Accelerator, working to deepen the social impact of 12 UK-based organisations that participated in the Awards. The Future Work Centre embodies the direction of travel for the RSA, as we move towards larger programmes of research and social change that draw on our unique assets, including the Fellowship.
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal — Issue 1 2019