New report models four possible futures of work

By agency reporter
December 31, 2019

Cashiers, bank clerks and hairdressers have been among the hardest hit by labour market shifts in the 2010s while van drivers, software programmers and care workers have enjoyed the biggest jobs growth, think-tank analysis shows. 

The RSA Future Work Centre found social, economic, political and technological trends over the last decade – including the ageing society, public sector austerity, and the rise of e-commerce and its impact on traditional high streets – have imprinted themselves on the labour market:

  • The fastest growing professions by net employment change were computer and software programmers (+162,000, or 72 per cent growth), general admin (161,000, or 26 per cent), finance managers and directors (115,000, or 51 per cent), van drivers (102,000, or 54 per cent) and marketing directors (100,000, or 56 per cent).
  • The fastest shrinking professions by net employment change were national government administrators (-109,000, or - 43 per cent), retail cashiers and check-out operators (-75,000, or -32 per cent), bank and post office clerks (-65,000, or - 43 per cent), sales and retail assistants (-64,000, or -6 per cent) and personal assistants (-55,000, or -23 per cent). 
  • Women have been especially hard hit by the changes on the high street. More than 289,000 traditional roles have been lost, 81 per cent of which were held by women. This includes 75,000 retail cashiers (67,000 women); 65,000 post office and banking clerks (41,000 women); 64,000 sales assistants (77,000 losses from women while men increased by 13,000); 34,000 hairdressers and barbers (28,000 women), 27,000 shelf fillers (12,000 women) and 23,000 launderers (11,000 women). 

In the 2020s, Brexit, the climate emergency, the ageing society, the pace of technological change, continued dominance of tech giants, the risk of another 2008 style crash and global political turmoil could all impact on jobs, the RSA warns, modelling four possible ‘futures of work’:

  • The Big Tech Economy describes a world where most technologies develop at a rapid pace, from self-driving cars to 3D printing. A new machine age delivers significant improvements in the quality of products and public services, with the cost of everyday goods including transport and energy plummeting. However, unemployment and economic insecurity creep upwards, and the spoils of growth are offshored and concentrated in a handful of US and Chinese tech behemoths. The dizzying pace of change leaves workers and unions with little time to respond. Typical jobs: software developers, digital transformation consultants, tech PRs.
  • The Precision Economy portrays a future of hyper-surveillance. Technological progress is moderate, but a proliferation of sensors allows firms to create value by capturing and analysing more information on objects, people and the environment. Gig platforms take on more prominence and rating systems become pervasive in the workplace. While some lament these trends as invasive, others believe they have ushered in a more meritocratic society where effort is more generously rewarded. A hyper-connected society also leads to wider positive spill overs, with less waste as fewer resources are left idle. Typical jobs: behavioural scientists, data analysts, online reputation managers.
  • The Exodus Economy is characterised by an economic slowdown. A crash on the scale of 2008 dries up funding for innovation and keeps the UK in a low-skilled, low-productivity and low-paid rut. Faced with another bout of austerity, workers lose faith in the ability of capitalism to improve their lives, and alternative economic models gather interest. Cooperatives and mutuals emerge in large numbers to serve peoples’ core economic needs in food, energy and banking. While some workers struggle on poverty wages, others discover ways to live more self-sufficiently, including by moving away from urban areas. Typical jobs: food cooperative workers, upcycled clothing designers, community energy managers.
  • The Empathy Economy envisages a future of responsible stewardship. Technology advances at a clip, but so too does public awareness of its dangers. Tech companies self-regulate to stem concerns and work hand in hand with external stakeholders to create new products that work on everyone’s terms. Automation takes places at a modest scale but is carefully managed in partnership with workers and unions. Disposable income flows into ‘empathy sectors’ like education, care and entertainment. This trend is broadly welcomed but brings with it a new challenge of emotional labour, where the need to be continuously expressive and available takes its toll. Typical jobs: digital detox planners, personal PR advisers and social media infometers.

The RSA Future Work Centre was set-up following RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor’s gig economy review for then Prime Minister, Theresa May. Matthew Taylor has subsequently retained his role as an advisor to the government on employment issues and good work, and is currently director of labour market enforcement as BEIS. 

Alan Lockey, head of the RSA Future Work Centre, said: “Changes in the labour market reflect changes in society, so we can see the impact of public sector austerity, the decline of the high street and the rise of e-commerce reflected in these figures. 

“Automation is already here, and its effects are uneven. The carnage on the high street has hollowed-out many jobs traditionally held by women, but areas of growth related to e-commerce, such as van driving, are going more to men. This is having a profound effect on individuals, families and society.

“In the 2020s, technological change will transform the labour market yet further. As more personal data becomes available, we could expect to see professions like behavioural scientists and data analysts rise in the tables in a decade’s time as the ‘precision economy’ develops. Even doctors and solicitors could find themselves employed by Google Lawyers and Apple Healthcare.

“We also predict a rise in work focused on relationships – in established fields like education or health and social care, but also new roles such as digital detox gurus helping ordinary people navigate social media in the ‘empathy economy’. This might sound more attractive, but brings with it increased emotional labour – which may end up falling once again mostly on women.” 

Sean Nesbitt, partner and employment law expert at Taylor Wessing, said: "Speaking as a lawyer, many of the businesses we advise base their employment policies and offerings on inclusion and the widening of opportunities for their employees. This is especially true for underrepresented parts of the work force.

"Many employers are working hard to create a more level playing field, meeting their employees' expectations for sustainable employment, more agile working models and greater benefits. There is a very real need for regulation and the regulators to keep up with changes in workplace culture and shifting employee expectations. 

"This is a timely reminder that the UK can be in the vanguard of rethinking how markets and workplaces are balanced for sustainable working practices. Ahead of the rest of the world in thinking about what should be done from a legal perspective, we should pick up the pace on delivering some of the policy aspects suggested."

* Read The Four Futures of Work here

* The Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts


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