There are lots of articles around at the moment about the future of work. They pop up in my timeline frequently, often accompanied by videos of futurologists at conferences outlining their vision of work in the 2020s and beyond. There’s something funny going on, though, because I seem to be hearing two very different stories without much overlap between them.
The story I hear coming out of management conferences and any number of consultants’ websites is all about how technology will revolutionise the workplace, how it will empower us and enable us to have more fulfilled working lives. It will trash hierarchy too, as we’ll all have access to so much more knowledge and information. Technology will force the democratisation and devolution of corporate decision making. Generation Y feature strongly in all of this. After all, they (and even more so, the next lot) won’t stand for hide-bound ideas of status and power. They want purpose in their working lives. And, of course, they have a different idea about what the workplace means. They are happy to work anywhere and want the flexibility to choose when and how they do their work. Unless your organisation gets hip to all of this, daddio, the Millenials won’t want to come and work for you.
In other places, though, I hear something very different. There will be technological change alright but, far from breaking down social barriers, it looks set to create new ones. This is the story of factories without people, of vanishing jobs, of a hollowed out labour market and of workers sliding down the skill ladder as the robots move up it. It is a vision of vast profits with few employees, falling real incomes for all except a skilled elite and the disappearance of the jobs that used to help people improve their skills and income. Far from democratising and devolving power, this raises the prospect of some people being shut out of it altogether. At worst, the accumulation of advantage over the next couple of generations could entrench inequality. Earlier this year, the UK Commission for Education and Skills published a report on work in 2030. It came up with four scenarios all of which had something in common: for those without skills or accumulated wealth, the outlook is bleak.
Yesterday’s Resolution Foundation report was the latest in a number of recent studies to highlight the ongoing polarisation of the labour market.
The report comments:
Such trends seem to correspond to structural changes in the UK labour market. These developments involve Britain – along with other advanced economies – experiencing a steady polarisation between high-skilled, white-collar and low-skilled, low paid jobs as a result of new technology replacing repetitive “routine” tasks that were previously fulfilled by middle-wage workers.
There seem to be two very different narratives here. One barely acknowledges the other.
In the shiny future of tablet-touting hipsters chilling out in coffee bars and turning the old fuddy-duddy organisations on their heads, there is very little mention of the displaced downwardly mobile workers. There’s not even an acknowledgement that the tech villages of the future, with their hubs and hangouts, might need security fences to protect them from the aggrieved masses. This isn’t just a question of ideology. The Economist, which is a long way from being a left-wing agit-rag, ran a series of hard-hitting articles earlier this month on the hollowed out labour market. Even the MoD cited rising inequality as a potential cause of instability in its Strategic Trends paper earlier this year:
Unmanned systems are increasingly likely to replace people in the workplace, carrying out tasks with increased effectiveness and efficiency, while reducing risk to humans. This could ultimately lead to mass unemployment and social unrest.
When Generals and Majors are citing the displacement of workers as a potential security risk, it’s probably safe to assume that this is more than just the obsession of a few well-meaning lefties. And yet there are articles, videos and entire conferences on the future of work in which it barely features. It’s almost as though it’s all happening somewhere else. Or, perhaps more importantly, to someone else.