Straws in the wind… which future of work are we heading for? - RSA

Straws in the wind… which future of work are we heading for?


  • Future of Work
  • Economics and Finance
  • Employment

Today we release our Four Futures of Work report, the result of an extensive research period for the RSA Future Work Centre. Faced with a panoply of radically disruptive technologies and socio-economic uncertainties, this report is our attempt to bring clarity, and provide a basis for positive action to ensure a future of good work for all.

What can we do to prepare for a future of work about which so much is speculated, but so little can be known with certainty? Our answer is scenario planning: rather than offer a single prediction for the world of work, instead we offer a portrait of four possible outcomes. These are tools for the imagination, providing a vocabulary to consider the various ways the world of work stand to be transformed through the complex interplay of technology and economic trends.

For a punchy overview of our findings, the key questions raised and our proposals for beginning to address them, I recommend my colleague Asheem’s blog, here.

We hope that each one of our scenarios is plausible, and indeed to an extent recognisable; a continuation of economic, technological and social phenomena we can already see today. To illustrate what I mean, this blog takes a different tack, drawing out where we can already see the seeds of each in the world of 2019, and what milestones in the coming years might we take as good clues for the track we may actually be on.


The Big Tech Economy: automation and market concentration

Perhaps the most well-worn narrative for the future of work that awaits us; stunning leaps in technology, from virtual reality to robots and self-driving cars, have a transformative effect on both our daily lives and on the world of work. Technological automation sweeps through the economy, displacing blue- and white-collar workers alike.

The Big Tech Economy obeys an economic logic previously confined to the technology sector. In particular market concentration, driven by network effects and a winner-takes-most market paradigm. Following from this, the expansionist tendency exhibited by tech Giants who look to not just enter new sectors, but devour them whole. Once, few would have predicted erstwhile bookseller Amazon would come to redefine the retail sector in its entirety. Will public services be next? Apple’s pursuit of a data-driven health service, or Citymapper’s plan to run their own ‘smart’ bus routes may be a sign of things to come in the Big Tech Economy.


The Precision Economy: it’s all about the ratings

The Precision Economy may be a more disappointing future for the tech-dreamers; in many ways it looks quite similar to the world we have today. Under the hood, however, an exponential increase in IoT devices and data-driven algorithms has had profound effects, creating a highly productive economy through optimised allocation of resources, not least labour.

Waves of ‘Uberization’ ripple through sectors of the economy, a phenomenon already well underway in the US, with Uber itself now offering not just car ride and food delivery gigs, but haulage, hospitality and insurance. As more sectors fall in line, work for increasing number is defined by increased surveillance and monitoring currently known only to the wristband-wearing workers of Amazon fulfilment centres or delivery riders whose ‘boss is an algorithm’.

A further example of the phenomena of the gig economy going mainstream, star-ratings are the ubiquitous standard for work and workers in the Precision Economy. For an illustration of how pervasive and powerful data-driven individual ratings can become, look no further than China’s Citizen Score (or certain recent episodes of Black Mirror…).

In his essay for our recent Field Guide for the Future of Work, Azeem Azhar imagines a future closely akin to a full-blown Precision Economy; a day in the life of a worker scrabbling for piecemeal work on task platforms stratified according to each worker’s individual rating, from the exclusive heights of Finest (“The finest work for the finest humans”) down to the backbreaking, dangerous and ill paid gigs for the unfortunates relegated to Worka. The emergence of this kind of stratified ecology of platforms would be an unmistakeable sign that Precision is the future we are headed for.


The Exodus Economy: giving up on the system

More than any other scenario, the Exodus Economy has a clear causal trigger: a financial crash on the scale of 2008 grinds the global economy to a standstill. Spooked investors and struggling companies pull money out of R&D, and technology stagnates. Automation is far from the biggest threat for workers, concerned instead with basic economic security as ever more employers look towards zero-hours contracts, agency work and other contingent forms of employment.

Though some financial disasters are foreseen (I won’t mention the B-word here), the lesson of 2008 and previous crises is that the warning signs are often entirely overlooked. We may only know we are headed for the Exodus economy when it blindsides us.

Backlash and disillusionment are the mood music of the Exodus Economy, as a new generation of workers either rebel against, or give up entirely on a traditional model of social mobility they see as reneging on its promises. Expect to see a ramp up of anti-establishment protest (think gilet jaunes), a surge in alternative economic models such as worker cooperatives (already growing at an unprecedented rate in the USA), and demographic shifts across urban and rural populations, as a tranche of young people choose to escape the city altogether for a quieter life of self-sufficiency.


The Empathy Economy: responsible tech but emotional fatigue

Imagine the technological leaps of the Big Tech Economy, but rather than living under the yoke of tech Giants, a more benevolent period of responsible tech stewardship is ushered in. How? In our scenario, the Giants themselves respond to increasing public consciousness and popular backlash with self-regulation. Past trends towards fair trade and anti-exploitation show what such an industry response to consumer consciousness and demand might look like. Right now we see a major campaign from one of the biggest tech titans - ‘Apple Never Sells Your Data’ – a perfect example of self-regulation in the quest for competitive advantage. Is it too much to hope that this could be the first in a broader trend?

As the name suggests, emotional and interpersonal skills are at a premium in the Empathy Economy. As technology automates many tasks performed by humans today, the workforce pivots towards ‘high-touch’ work, including care and therapeutic work, as well as trading off creativity and individuality. An interesting facet of this outcome which emerged during our research conversations is the potential for a dark side to the huge increase in emotional labour and commodification of personality.

How do the retail workers of the Empathy Economy feel finishing a shift where shelf-stacking and till operating has been replaced with experience curation and performance? This was the subject of a fascinating discussion at the Future Work Centre’s first Retail Sector Lab of industry leaders, which we hosted yesterday. Likewise how do young jobseekers feel about the necessity to maintain a personal brand to a level today reserved only for professional influencers? Expect widespread discussion of emotional burnout as we head towards the Empathy Economy.


The future is ours to shape

An early draft of this blog was titled ‘canaries in the coal mine’, but such a doom-laden image misses the mark. Though we must be vigilant to the many serious risks ahead we are not, necessarily, staring down the barrel of impending techno-dystopia.

As we make clear in the report, each future scenario carries dangers, but also benefits and unique opportunities if we’re alive to them. Above all, this is a call to embrace our agency in a debate often characterised by a kind of fatalism: the march of technology is something that happens to us, whether we like it or not.

Not so. As we hope our scenarios show, our agency and decisions have a key part to play. It may not be entirely in our control which future of work we arrive at, but in order to maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks, we must first be aware of our direction of travel.

Download the Four Futures of Work report (PDF, 1.4MB)

Find out more about the RSA Future Work Centre

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