What do MPs think about the future of work? - RSA

What do MPs think about the future of work?


  • Picture of Sarah Darrall
    Sarah Darrall
    Assistant Researcher, Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing
  • Future of Work
  • Technology

An RSA survey found that in February 2019, 43% of MPs felt they did not personally have the expertise to make sound judgements on technology policy.

Last week, the Institute for the Future of Work launched their Good Work Charter in the Houses of Parliament. Based on the debate at that event, what are MPs thinking about the future of work now?

MPs are increasingly interested in the quality of jobs, not just the quantity of jobs

The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices has changed the debate, with increasing interest in looking at the quality of jobs, not just the quantity of jobs.

There are 32.5 million people now in work in the UK – a record level of employment. But priorities are shifting, and policymakers are seeing jobs as more than a statistic.

Of course, the argument for ‘good work’ is one that the RSA has been making for many years.

At the Good Work Charter launch, the consensus was for moving towards a fairer workplace and more morally-grounded economy, with a desire to harness technology for the greater good.

The political conversation about jobs is becoming one about values, not just numbers.  

Predictions are not the same as a vision for the future

Lots of issues were raised, each of them important. But the debate lacked an overall idea of what the future would look like.

We heard statistics like:

  • “In 2020 alone, the UK is likely to lose 175,000 high street jobs”
  • “If current inequality trends persist, the top 1% will own two thirds of UK wealth by 2030”
  • “31% of workers say they are worried about the impact of automation on their job”

but the discussion did not provide an insight into how the future of work might play out.

How do we begin to tackle a problem if we can’t see the full picture?

A single forecast for the future of work wouldn’t capture the uncertainty we face in society, or technology.

In our Four Future of Work report, the RSA took a ‘scenarios’ approach – outlining four different, possible futures intended to start a debate about which elements from each are most likely.

Practical policy solutions for the future of work

There are huge global forces at play here, and with employment no longer offering a sure-fire route out of poverty, action is needed by governments and businesses alike.

These concerns must be translated into practical policy solutions. Here are some that are being discussed.

Individual learning accounts could fund lifelong learning

The case for lifelong learning is strong:

  • automation will displace workers who will need to retrain to enter growing occupations
  • new technologies will change the nature of jobs forcing workers to expand their repertoire of skills
  • an ageing population will mean people are working for longer and may need to refresh their skillsets more regularly.

Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) are personal budgets that pay course providers for people to learn throughout their career. They have the goal of promoting a universal right to lifelong learning. If developed properly, they offer workers of all description the opportunity and funds to reskill and adapt to shifting work conditions.

The accounts themselves are, however, not without flaws. The previous trials under the Blair government were subject to £97 million of fraud. Similar problems have arisen in Singapore in recent years.

ILAs do not provide a silver bullet. Lifelong learning must address the needs of those across the professional spectrum. Workers in low-skill jobs are three times less likely to have participated in on-the-job training, yet they are the ones most at risk from automation, so we need to design solutions with them in mind.

An alternative policy would be the introduction of digital badges, being explored by the RSA-DigitalMe Cities of Learning programme. These are micro-credentials of an achievement, both formal education and informal achievements, to offer a portable portrait of people’s abilities. There are other examples of worldwide innovation – the RSA recently published research with inspiring examples of skills development from Switzerland, Russia, Shanghai, and Singapore.

Employee ownership schemes to boost worker voice

Employee ownership is a mechanism to recognise and utilise worker voice. Corporate governance has long been dominated by shareholder voice, but momentum is gaining behind the idea that other stakeholders, including workers, have value to add.

Including employees in these conversations has huge potential for productivity, innovation, resilience to economic fluctuations and worker fulfilment. We will all be affected by the changing nature of work, we therefore all deserve a seat at the table.

The links between good work and productivity are being explored by the RSA in a collaboration with Carnegie Trust, with a future work lab taking place in July.

Universal basic income to tackle economic insecurity

It has long been claimed that the UK’s social security system is failing to provide for those who are worst-off in society. Philip Alston’s UN report substantiated those claims, comparing current welfare policy to the creation of Dickensian workhouses. 

A systemic overhaul is needed to support the changing nature of employment and recognise work that has previously been undervalued.

It should assist those who partake in more ‘unconventional’ work, including self-employment and caring responsibilities. An obvious contender, and one raised by Liam Byrne, is universal basic income (UBI).

It offers citizens a stable income, flexibility over how they contribute to society and affords a welcome alternative to work conditionality and sanctions. The RSA recently published findings from our research in Fife, Scotland modelling how a basic income could be introduced, and looking at what difference a basic income could make to people’s lives.

With a new government on the way, now is the time to turn talk into action

Fresh interest in the debate around the future of work is welcomed. But is this all talk and no action?

Theresa May mentioned “good jobs” in her speech announcing she’d step down as Conservative party leader. With a new government on the way over the summer, it’s time for MPs to raise their game on the future of work.

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