Insecurity and the new world of work - RSA

Insecurity and the new world of work

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  • Economics and Finance
  • Employment
  • Social justice

Much has been said about the growth and persistence of inequality. Equally, poverty occupies public discussion – although to a lesser extent. But the big story that may have been largely missed is that of growing insecurity. Yet, evidence is gathering rapidly that this may be one of the big trends of our times.

The impacts of inequality, in poverty and insecurity – the three ‘I’s of powerlessness – of course overlap. However, insecurity has a particularly corrosive effect and the likelihood is that insecurity may get worse. This is not a new story. Insecurity has been growing for at least two decades. The changes we have seen to the welfare state over the last decade are compounding the problem. Technological change could make it far worse. It is in this context that Basic Income becomes necessary – it is the only form of support that provides a solid foundation; a resistance to growing insecurity.

There are three dimensions to insecurity – past, present and future. Before we even get to the possible impacts of technology, it is important to emphasise that insecurity has been growing for some time.

Since 2007*, almost all the aggregate increase in employment in the UK is accounted for by ‘non-standard jobs’, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These included low-pay self-employment, ‘flexible’ and zero-hours contracts and part-time work.

And the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) data show the impacts of these trends very clearly. Firstly, we should note that ‘in poverty’ numbers for parents has barely moved in twenty years – despite the expansion of tax credits in the 2000s. For non-parents there has been an increase in numbers in poverty by a million or so. Then we need to look at what social attitudes are telling us. BSA surveys the degree to which respondents agree they have job security. Overall, there has barely been a change. Good news? Not so fast. Amongst ‘routine and semi-routine’ workers (i.e. the working class), job security has declined by 11% in a decade. This has especially been the case amongst older workers. Are you starting to see a sociological basis for Brexit yet?

Furthermore, when asked about the degree of control/agency they have in their daily working lives, the proportion of ‘routine and semi-routine’ workers saying they are ‘not free to decide’ has increased by 15% in ten years. Think about those jobs you hear about in Amazon warehouses and Sports Direct or the spread of zero-hours contracts that put the employer in charge. A picture of lack of control and insecurity emerges. Take back control has obvious appeal.

Most staggeringly, this is having an impact on well-being. Traditionally, it is managerial and professional jobs that are the most stressful. And indeed, just under 40% of respondents in that group said they were stressed at work in 2005. As expected, they are still the most stressed in 2015 at just over 40%. But wait, those in ‘routine and semi-routine’ work who are stressed has increased from just under twenty percent to just under 30% in a decade. What we are now starting to see is high pay stress for low pay – the worst of both worlds.

So the work-place is increasingly harmful to well-being, security and individual control and agency. Something big has been happening under the radar and it needs much deeper analysis. There is a sense here that the ‘job’ is fundamentally changing. The industrial age job served as an important bedrock of social identity and personal worth as well as a secure income. Now it is being broken up into its efficient and inefficient parts. Work is becoming piecemeal with individuals and couples having to cobble together enough income as it becomes available. They become stuck in a low pay-no pay cycle out of which there is no release. This is a trend but one that has been going in one direction for at least two decades.

Alongside the changing sociology of the ‘job’ a new welfare state has been constructed – one that makes matters worse. This is the present dimension. The stubborn poverty numbers have already been referenced. But those who are increasingly stuck in stressful working lives, face stresses through an interfering, disempowering welfare state. This double insecurity creates a situation of ‘bandwidth scarcity’ where it becomes difficult to make good decisions as a result of constant anxiety. This results in debt, family troubles, addiction, poor working choices and so on.

To compound these changes, there is the future dimension- technology.  The best guide to likely impacts of technological change has to be the past; previous technological leaps have created more new (and better) work opportunities than jobs destroyed in aggregate. However, these changes have hit particular groups of workers and communities hard and sometimes for considerable lengths of time.

Once machine capability is greater than human skill levels in a particular domain then it is simply a matter of waiting for capital investment to flow into that technology before workers become redundant and whole categories of work obsolete. There are undoubtedly a range of technological innovations in automation, artificial intelligence, smart robotics, big data and algorithmic analysis coming on stream. At the very least, we should be alert to the possibility that these could have a significant negative impact on whole sections of worker (whilst, it should be acknowledged, empowering others) and these impacts could be more sudden or intensive than historical scenarios might suggest.

It can’t go unnoticed that a relatively simple piece of software enabled by the smart phone and GPS technology – namely Uber – has had such a sudden impact on urban transportation and the workers employed in that sector. The point here is not about robots necessarily. It’s that software in many different forms can slice, dice and repackage value and consequently work in radically new ways. The wane of the modern ‘job’ is, therefore, likely to continue and may even accelerate.

Some radical new thinking is desperately needed – about wage support, employment rights, regulation, asset transfer, new forms of worker support post-industrial age union, and support for skills development. But to try to face the world of growing insecurity without moving forwards decisively on a Basic Income – as advocated by the RSA - is like introducing common education without primary schools. Basic Income is a platform for greater freedom and security for workers; it is the platform for a radically different social contract.

Find out more about the RSA model of Basic Income

*The original piece said '1995' in error.

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  • Actually the power gradient between employers and employees is not so great - as long as employees are prepared not to passively accept what is offered - and en mass. 

    We are experiencing a period of learnt failure that is being exploited by a market - without that market being conscious of the lower value of disenchanted disengaged, angry and unhealthy employees - why?  Because rarely does a business have a factory or call centre with living wages, full time contracts and job security in direct comparison with the zero hours, 30 hours a week, no security set-up.  

    Why?  Because since the financial crises and 'austerity' finance directors, controllers and minimisers have grabbed control of the reigns, and created an inward-looking, cost saving, tax avoiding, commitment reducing business culture... because they can. 

    Many employers are looking so hard at cost-saving, they are forgetting the link with income generation, and also between the incomes of their, and their very similarly-strategised direct and indirect competitors and the ability of the general public to buy goods and services.

    It used to be that market inefficiency used to leave enough variation that the market would take some time to get to crisis, if at all, but now, so many business models, algorithms and business ideas are completely homogeneous.. and cost-directed, because of the reliance on very similar systems with very similar directions, we are at a seemingly permanent crisis. 

    A major supermarket for example, paying less than full time minimum wage to its employees, as are its competitors, high street brands, internet businesses, delivery companies, restaurants and bars, factories and transport companies (yes, that's you Deliveroo .. 'Exploiteroo' as we call it here), can't honestly be surprised when all those people who used to buy their stuff now don't.. can they?

    Businesses need to remember that the purpose of business is to spend costs, to make income.  If you are hoping to increase your income by reducing costs, the end result is no business.  Think on. 

  • As someone who works in the housing/ homeless sector theimpact of zero hours contracts are all too easy to see. Too many of the people Iwork with end up on zero hour contracts, 40 hours one week, zero hours for thenext three weeks. Then trying to work with the DWP to ensure they get paid housingbenefit or JSA to cover the zero hours is a nightmare.

    Of course you can also be sanctioned for failing to take azero hours contract so end up with no rent or JSA until you appeal against youbeing sanctioned. Housing conditions are also declining as those at the bottomare forced into smaller and smaller flats and houses.

    The balance of social equality has changed with zero hourscontracts, forced self employment, with employers failing to cover sick pay,holiday pay and pensions. We are creating a more unequal society and this is nothingto do with technology but everything to do with greed. We as a society face achoice more equality or greater inequality and their consequences.

    What could those consequences be? If history repeats itself thenthink of ourselves in the late 1890s early 1900s. Now what was happening in theearly 20th century?         

  • It's true that for many people work is relentlessly hard and poorly paid, but this piece goes too far in describing the modern workplace as 'harmful to well-being, security and individual control and agency' on the basis of employees' assessment of it as increasingly stressful over the last decade.  This evaluation should be seen in context: expectations and a sense of entitlement are at a seemingly all-time high, particularly amongst those entering the job market for the first time, most now armed with a degree that doesn't earn them a graduate-level job.  Employers testify that many young people are ill-equipped for the world of work; perhaps they find it stressful because they have been sheltered and led, even guided onto, career paths and income expectations that simply do not exist any more, rather than that conditions are suddenly so much worse? 

    The author asserts that 'the industrial age job served as an important bedrock of social identity and personal worth as well as a secure income', but I'm not sure many of those who earned a pittance in dangerous factories and mines would have seen it that way.  That said, basic income is a really interesting proposal which could tackle many of the ethical issues around in the minefield of today's workplace and benefits system.

  • This is an excellent idea that helps resolve the steepening power gradient between employers and employees. 

    While a basic income may reduce employment hours, it is likely to greatly increase productivity as make work jobs are reduced or eliminated (e.g. in Australia, 500,000 people appear to be involved in managing about 750,000 people on welfare).

                                     Prof Chris Wright (PhD, FCPA, FRSA)

  • Whilst I agree with the description of the current situation, the solution cannot be a "more of the same" approach. Authors like Douglas Rushkoff recommend an approach that enables the whole of society to become more interconnected (not just the workers). In other words a return to values of sharing, mutual interdependence (anyone remember building societies?) and a less extractive "winner takes all" economy. The challenge to this becoming a reality isn't supporting workers in the current model, it's a long term shift away from hierarchical organisations in which leaders are disproportionately rewarded, whilst salaried workers are ever more disenfranchised economically and politically.