The transformation of work has started in a multiplicity of ways, many hard to grasp. It sometimes feels as if the increasingly frequent and wildly differing predictions are a distraction that barely scratch the surface of this change. This feeling is right.
First, many are experiencing or observing ‘workforce transition’ already. In many major industrial sectors - retail for example - the primary and secondary effects of automation are kicking in: the ‘future of work’ is starting now.
Second, these reports tend to be high level and focus on an important but single dimension of change: technological capabilities. Most don’t tackle the other trends and factors that characterise our experience of work and hopes for its future.
Third, the numbers seem to vary because of different methods, use of macro-economic data sets and thresholds set for when an occupation may be ‘automated.’ Reports seem a world away because they are. They offer frameworks or mechanisms for understanding the impact of technology on aspects of work, but they aren’t local, meaningful, useable. So brilliant reports are lost in translation and leave us paralysed, arguing about numbers in the language of Star Wars.
This takes us to the last point, which is perhaps the most important. There’s a massive disconnect between the predictions, perspectives and priorities of our leading economists and those beginning to experience transition in our most vunerable sectors and regions - for example the Swansea Virgin call centre employees warned of redundancy last week, pertinently coinciding with the launch of Google’s jaw-droppingly human voice-bot.
This was a message heard loud and clear by the Commission on the Future of Work, which I set up for Tom Watson MP in 2016 to spearhead the debate in Westminster. The message is getting louder. It’s one of the most profound challenges we’re facing as a society. Thinking about the Future of Work throws this dynamic into sharp relief and – since work is at the centre of people’s lives, communities and the economy – offers a constant lens through which to understand and respond to some of Britain’s biggest problems.
Taken together, these arguments take us to one place. It’s a conclusion, but it’s a beginning too. The Commission was a good start. But there’s more work to be done. Britain needs an independent institution dedicated to solving our most pressing Future of Work challenges. We need to locate big questions about the social and economic conditions required to create and value good work in the places most at risk. We need a cross-disciplinary, cross-departmental, ‘ecosystem’ approach to the Future of Work in Britain – one which embraces innovation but understands its broadest implications on ownership, power and control, and addresses adverse affects – large and small.
We also need to work differently – collaboratively – not just with some wonderful partners already working in this space but alongside communities in transition. The speed and depth of transformation is outstripping the pace and creativity of traditional policy-making. The new technological revolution should be a revolution in policy. Civic enterprise connects research and ideas with action, generating new forms of civic engagement too. We must harness it and move to a place in which looking up from the bottom and co-creating practical solutions are the norm.
As we work, we will create a ‘feedback loop’ to amplify the voices of people experiencing transition across the country and take them to policy-makers before decisions are made. And we will keep on learning to fill the gaps in our understanding: how theories are playing out in sectors and regions across Britain; the timeline for different aspects of transition; the composition of change – who is being affected and who is most at risk; what forms of practical support work best.
So I’m excited to be setting up a thinktank dedicated to the Future of Work with Naomi Climer, former president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Sir Chris Pissarides, our Nobel Prize winner in unemployment and Regius Professor of Economics at the LSE. Our mission will be rooted in the Future of Work Commission: to help people, organisations and government create practical solutions to make our Future of Work better and fairer and shape a future that works for everyone. Contemporary challenges – not least Brexit and the productivity puzzle – demand this initiative.
“This important initiative will bring research and recommendations live,” says Sir Christopher. Transformations to the world of work demand a dedicated body collaborating with partners to take advantage of new opportunities and solve some of modern industrial society’s most pressing challenges.’
“Working as an independent body will mean that we can be nimble and experimental, whilst our collective breadth of cross-disciplinary expert knowledge and diverse networks will mean that we can expedite processes, create blueprints and get pilot projects underway to test new thinking and put research into practice,” adds Naomi.
As my 15-year-old complains about the level of rote-learning for his GCSEs, I know I should be supportive but can’t help agreeing - and pointing out that Britain only scores 20/25 OECD countries for 21st Century knowledge and future skills. We both know there isn’t much time to lose.
Anna Thomas is founding director of IFOW
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