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Study models four scenarios of work by 2035, including exodus from big city capitalism; tech abundance for the masses; a workforce under constant surveillance; and a world where empathy and experience sectors see rapid growth.

  • RSA/YouGov survey shows MPs are concerned about technology and think it will be as big a challenge as delivering Brexit – but just 15% think MPs are doing enough to prepare and only 29% think they as individuals grasp the issues.  
  • 45% of Conservative MPs think consumers will be the biggest winners from technology, compared to just 12% of Labour MPs. 
  • Just 10% of Tories and 29% of Labour MPs think women will be more negatively impacted than men – despite emerging evidence to the contrary.  
  • Labour MPs strongly back a Four-Day Week (72%), lean towards a Universal Basic Income (44%), and are split 37%-41% on reintroducing the union ‘closed shop’.  
  • Matthew Taylor, RSA chief executive and government gig economy adviser, urges government to introduce personal learning ‘budgets’ to power retraining, give unions new rights and responsibilities, and pilot Universal Basic Income to address economic insecurity. 

MPs are "clueless" about the impact of new tech on workers and need a game plan for automation, the government’s gig economy advisor warns, as the think-tank he leads publishes a major study on the future of work. 

The Four Futures of Work from the RSA Future Work Centre, models four scenarios for the world of work in 2035 and argues that policy-makers need to take action now to prepare for a ‘new machine age’, in whatever form that comes. 

Rising inequality, growing suppression and surveillance in the workplace, stagnant wages, discrimination and bias by algorithm, and deepening regional divisions, could have a bigger impact on workers than simple job losses to robots, the study cautions.  

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From the empathy economy to recruitment by algorithm: four ‘futures of work’ by 2035 

While most studies on the future of work have focussed on the impact of technology on job losses alone, this report looks at its broader effects, including on surveillance, AI-led recruitment practices and the growth of gig platforms (which would not exist without the powerful algorithms that underpin them). To account for the multitude of variables at play, the RSA’s researchers used a technique known as morphological analysis, informed by expert input and advised on by leading design firm Arup.  

Uncertainties like the health of the global economy, the level of net migration to the UK, and advances in digital technologies like the ‘Internet of Things’ and blockchain, were modelled by researchers to produce four detailed snapshots of what our economy could look like in 2035: 

  • 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.    
  • 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.  
  • 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. 
  • 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. 

HD illustrations for each scenario are available for media re-use on request, credit: Nic Hinton for the RSA 

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But the report warns MPs are failing to rise to the challenge, amid a shallow debate on automation as well as the distraction of Brexit.  

A representative YouGov survey of MPs, commissioned as part of the report, [see Notes] found: 

  • MPs agree new technology will have a huge impact – even as big as Brexit – but are largely ignorant about technology: Just 15% of MPs think parliamentarians are doing enough to prepare workers for new technologies, while 14% think the same of civil servants. More MPs disagree than agree that they know enough about new technologies to make the right judgement calls on technology policy (43% to 29%). And this is despite 40% fearing the impact of technology on workers in their own constituency, with 46% saying dealing with tech shifts for workers will be as big a challenge as delivering Brexit.  
  • MPs disagree that women will feel the most impact, despite emerging evidence to the contrary: three-in-ten (29%) Labour MPs and just one-in-ten (10%) of Conservative MPs believe that women will be more affected by automation than men. Recent RSA research warned skilled jobs at all levels are already being ‘lost’, but unlike the loss of manufacturing and industry in the 1980s, women are currently faring worse due to automation and digital changes in banking and retail, plus public sector austerity. Meanwhile, 57% of MPs believe that low-skilled workers will be more affected than high-skilled workers, though changes will likely happen at all levels of skills.  
  • Labour MPs are more pessimistic about ‘who gains’ than Conservative MPs: Conservatives think the big winners from new tech will be consumers, but Labour MPs and the public are more sceptical: nearly half (45%) think consumers will be the biggest winners from technology, compared to just 12% of Labour, while 36% of Labour MPs think tech firms will gain most, with 20% of Tories agreeing, while 43% of Labour MPs think employers will gain the most, with just 15% of Conservatives agreeing.  
  • There are big party-political splits on policy solutions: Almost three-quarters (72%) of Labour MPs back promoting a Four-Day Working Week, compared to one-in-five (21%) of Tories. 44% of Labour MPs support a ‘Universal Basic Income’, compared to just 11% of Conservatives. And perhaps surprisingly, Labour MPs are relatively split on the return of the ‘closed shop’ (37% agree to 41% disagree), with Conservative MPs strongly opposed (89%). 
  • But there are areas of consensus too: Two-thirds (65%) back ‘Personal Learning Accounts’ – individual budgets for life-long learning for everyone, including 59% of Conservatives and 64% of Labour, while MPs of all parties back stricter competition policy to reign in the power of large companies, such as Facebook or Google. And 48% of MPs would support a ‘Sovereign Wealth Fund’ for all, including 38% of Tories and 53% of Labour MPs. 

 

The RSA report calls for a comprehensive ‘game plan’ to deal with how new technology is already playing out, including: 

  • Promoting economic security through a new ‘Sovereign Wealth Fund’ for all, and piloting Universal Basic Income to prepare for a future where many workers could experience income ‘yo-yoing’ and/or caring responsibilities.  
  • Strengthening workers’ voice by giving unions more rights, including allowing digital balloting of members, as well as creating a new union for tech workers.  
  • Helping workers update their skills through ‘Personal Learning Accounts’ – individual training ‘budgets’ for every citizen, including the self-employed. 
  • Introducing a new consumer transaction charge – akin to New York’s ‘Black Car Fund’ – which is paid by consumers to give workers access to benefits like sick or paternity pay.  
  • Professionalising low-skilled jobs through occupational licensing, which would lend status to more job types and encourage career progression. 

 

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and author of the Taylor Review, said: 

“We can’t predict the future, but we can prepare for it.  

“If we continue to talk only of jobs lost to mass automation and do not prepare for radically different futures, we risk putting the livelihoods of workers at jeopardy: rising inequality, growing suppression in the workplace, stagnant wages, heightened discrimination and bias, and deepening geographic division could all come to pass if we do not become more responsible custodians of technology. 

“Our survey of MPs that accompanies the publication of this report shows that our law makers have a deepening concern about the impact of technology while being clueless about how that impact could unfold. Less than half feel they have the expertise to make sound judgements about tech policy, and only 15 percent feel MPs are doing enough to prepare workers for new technologies. 

“Yet we do have choices. We can choose to establish a robust regulatory regime for technology and data rights. We can choose to create a tax system that shifts the burden onto those with the broadest shoulders. We can choose to overhaul our education system so that we treat lifelong learning more seriously. And we can choose to create a competition policy that stands up to the power of large firms when they impinge on the wellbeing of workers.” 

 

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. The  report will chime with many employees, and there is a very real need for regulation and the regulators to keep up with changes in workplace culture and shifting employee expectations.  

"The pace of implementation of Good Work has dropped off and this report 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." 

ends 

 

Survey methodology: 

YouGov completed online interviews with a representative sample of 100 MPs.  

The survey was completed between 12 and 26 February 2019. All results are based on a sample and are therefore subject to statistical errors normally associated with sample-based information  

Results for MPs are weighted by party, gender, electoral cohort, and geography to give a sample that is representative of the House of Commons and based on a 95% confidence level results are correct to +/- 9%. 

 

Contact: 

Ash Singleton, Head of Media and Communications, ash[dot]singleton@rsa.org.uk, 07799 737 970.  

 

Notes: 

The RSA [the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce] is an independent charity whose mission is to enrich society through ideas and action. 

Our work covers a number of areas including the rise of the 'gig economy', robotics & automation; education & creative learning; and reforming public services to put communities in control.  

The RSA Future Work Centre follows RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor’s Review into modern employment practices for the Prime Minister. 

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