A steady stream of dystopian warnings of a 'rise of the robots' has produced plenty of excitement about an imminent end to work as we know it. It can feel from reading books like Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams' Inventing the Future or Martin Ford's The Rise of the Robots that paid work will soon be a thing of the past, and depending on who you listen to, we will either be fighting for scraps in a violent and divided society or enjoying the luxuries of a fully automated communism.
Yet these visions seem at odds with the monthly labour market figures showing record high employment rates and rising wages. This makes for a confusing picture.
The rise of the robots makes for a compelling story, that's for sure. But it fails to capture the whole picture of change in the world of work. Let me set out why.
While the robots are not at the door yet, there are a number of important trends happening right now that are changing attitudes to work and creating anxiety, stress and insecurity. Only by addressing the change that is happening right now can we prepare ourselves to adequately address change in the future.
The first key trend we need to understand is the hollowing out of the labour market, or what economists Alan Manning and Maarten Goos call the rise of "lovely and lousy" jobs. The increasing impact of technology, and in part globalisation, on the labour market in recent years has led to a decline in 'middle tier' jobs, particularly in manufacturing and clerical roles. These jobs are characterised by their ability to be routinised, and therefore automated.
The second trend is stagnation. While wages are beginning to pick up, average earnings remain well below their pre-crisis peak. The limited (and at times non-existent, or even negative) wage growth since 2008 is linked to the UK's stagnant productivity performance, and the spectre of another recession following the UK's decision to leave the EU will do nothing to calm fears over a further squeeze in living standards.
The third and final key trend is atomisation. The labour market is becoming more fragmented with a trend towards microbusinesses and self-employment and away from larger firms. The number of self-employed workers has grown by 38 per cent since the turn of the millennium, with 1.2 million more self-employed workers in 2014 than in 2000. To put this into perspective, this growth in self-employment is greater than the total number of people employed by Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons and the John Lewis Partnership combined.
These changes are important not just for their impact on the economy, living standards and the organisation of the labour market. The changes that are happening are driving real change in people's experiences at work. One recent study found 35 per cent of people did not feel their job was secure, a rise from 17 per cent of workers in 2001. Stress at work was reported by 37 per cent of the UK's workforce in 2015, up from 28 per cent in 1989. And last year, 37 per cent of workers in the UK - around 11.5 million people - felt their job was not making a meaningful contribution to the world.
The changes that are happening are creating an insecure, stressed out workforce for whom the notion of work carries less and less meaning. In this sense, the challenge for leaders and policymakers is political. The whys and wherefores of the UK's decision to leave the European Union will be analysed and argued about over the coming months and years. But there does appear to be a consensus emerging that many of those that voted to leave the EU did so because they felt an anxiety and insecurity from the pace of change in their lives and in their communities. It is therefore no coincidence that these same themes can be clearly identified in Britain's workforce.
It is therefore absolutely essential that if our leaders - in politics, business and society - are able to regain the trust from people that feel 'left behind' by change in their country, they must address their fears and anxieties in the world of work. While it is crucial we anticipate how the world will look in the decades ahead, it is even more important that we properly understand how the world of work is changing right now. Only then can we find the solutions to the growing anxiety in the UK's workforce today.
This blog is based on Cameron Tait's chapter in the book Changing Work: Progressive ideas for the modern world of work, published this week. Changing Work is the first publication from The Changing Work Centre, an initiative from the Fabian Society and Community, which is chaired by Yvette Cooper MP.