Can future work be inclusive? - RSA

Can future work be inclusive?


  • Picture of Liz Sayce OBE FRSA
    Liz Sayce OBE FRSA
    Disability/mental health policy wonk, focused on inclusion especially in employment & education
  • Future of Work
  • Accessibility & inclusion
  • Fellowship

Join Liz Sayce OBE FRSA (and former CEO of Disability Rights UK) and Jane Hatton FCIPD FRSA, author of “A Dozen Brilliant Reasons to Employ Disabled People”, to discuss ‘The Future of Work: Opportunities for Disabled People and Employers' as part of the RSA's Friday Conversations.

Millions of words have been written on the future of work – including the RSA’s Four Futures of Work, from Big Tech to the Empathy Economy. On 12 April, as part of the RSA's Friday Conversations, we discuss what this might mean for inclusion of people living with health conditions or impairments. 

Around 40% of the (ageing) working age population is expected to have a long-term health condition by 2030, so the question of whether future work can be inclusive will be critical to morale, performance and hiring and retaining talent.

Arguably the earlier shift from manual work to a knowledge and service economy benefited some people with physical impairments – and left those with learning disabilities, autistic spectrum and mental health conditions more likely to be disadvantaged: all these groups have employment rates of under 25%.

So what next? The sensationalist view is that humans - disabled humans amongst them - will lose their economic value: taxi drivers will go the way of the horse, algorithms will assess everything from medical scans to legal precedents, and the notion that humans have unique value beyond algorithms will be recognized as wishful thinking.

More moderately, ONS estimates that 1.5 million jobs are at high risk of automation in England in the next 10-20 years, whilst other jobs will simply change. 70% of employees at high risk of automation are women, 70% are part-time and 99% have either below GCSE qualifications (60%) or just GCSE or A level (39%). Disabled people (including those with health conditions) are significantly more likely than non-disabled people to work part-time and to have low or no qualifications. They could be disproportionately affected. Automation has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities by gender, qualifications, geography and disability.

This could be avoided, by:

  • Making inclusion central to debate on the future of work
  • Ensuring that Artificial/Augmented Intelligence (AI) 'augments' inclusion, just as texting and voice recognition software transformed opportunities for Deaf and visually impaired people in the last wave of technological change. Developments from machine learning to autonomous cars could expand the number of roles and tasks disabled people could perform – but only if inclusion is built in to tech developments from the outset
  • Ensuring people who have or acquire an impairment can develop new skills throughout their lives, at scale. For instance, Cisco Networking Academy has trained 7.8 million students in 170 countries in 20 years: 92% secured work. In Austria the Essl Foundation with Cisco, employers and educational partners are developing the first inclusive certified training course on cybersecurity
  • Realigning policy from largely ineffective supply side measures (incentivising or pressurising disabled individuals out of work to do work related activity) to demand side interventions to influence employers to create inclusive work.

Examples of this would be:

Transparency: requiring large employers to report publicly on their workforce through a Dashboard covering disability, gender, ethnicity, living wage – to prompt accountability to shareholders and the public, stimulate peer pressure and attract employees.

Risk sharing: Government to support employers who recruit or retain people with fluctuating conditions, practically and financially

Rights: updating rights to fit a world of ‘gig’ and short-term contracts; and clamping down on new discriminations, for instance recruitment algorithms screening out applications on the basis of facial behavior or gaps on the CV – discriminating against people with facial disfigurements, stroke, health-related work gaps….

Leadership: in companies, a senior person accountable to the Board for progress on disabled people’s employment and pay; for governments, employing disabled people at all levels and bending the 240 billion spent annually to the end of fairer employment by contractors.

For a fuller discussion of evidence and proposals for demand side levers see 'Sayce (2018) Switching Focus'.

‘I think Government needs to be a bit stricter with us – why are there requirements to report on gender as employers but not on disability?’ (Paul Polman, Chief Executive, Unilever, 2018 )

Work is changing in other ways too. In 20 years it has become more intense, with declining autonomy and greater expectation of multi-tasking. This is problematic for some disabled people: for instance, a Deaf person cannot switch from data entry to phone work; someone with a learning disability may excel at a complex task once learnt, but need time to learn a new one.

Perhaps the key question should not be whether an individual is fit for work, but whether the work is fit for the individual’ (Annie Irvine)

More positively, flexible working is on the rise. The Timewise Power 50 lists people who have achieved success whilst working part-time, job sharing or returning to work. It includes just a few where the background includes their own or family ill-health. There is huge potential to expand flexibility so that, for instance, someone with a fluctuating health condition could work annualized hours or job share with agreements on cover for ill-health. Flexibility matters in job design – not just dusting off a job description and going to advert, but thinking afresh and offering some discrete roles, that can be done by people who need time to learn a task, or can work just a few hours a week – as well as broader multi-tasking roles.

In January 2019 the World Economic Forum at Davos held a plenary session on disability for the first time and a campaign was launched (Valuable 500) to unlock the social and economic potential of people with disabilities across the world. Multi-national companies that signed up include Unilever, Microsoft, Fujitsu, Barclays and Accenture, with senior business leader endorsement (for example, from Sir Richard Branson).

The UK Government is committed to a million more disabled people in work from 2017-27 and is currently consulting on using procurement to drive social value, including employment of disabled people.

Inclusive work is better work for everyone, there are opportunities to expand it and this debate needs to run and run.

Liz and Jane have kindly made their presentation accessible via PDF, which you can find here. To join the conversation online, please share your questions for Liz via twitter @rawthmells #JoinTheConversation and we will tweet you the answers back live during the event!

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