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What role will disabled people play in the Four Futures of Work identified by the RSA?

It’s widely agreed that the world of work will look very different in the future. Exactly how it will look is up for debate, but it will be different. Alongside this, the working population is also changing. Currently, around 18% of people of working age are disabled or have a long-term health condition. We are an aging population, and for various reasons, people are tending to work for much longer, whether through necessity or choice. The older we are, the more likely we are to acquire impairments, so the proportion of the workforce who are disabled will significantly grow.

These two changes are not only occurring concurrently, they are inextricably linked, and it is vital that disability is a central theme when considering the future of work.

The RSA Future Work Centre recently published The Four Futures of Work, which looks at four possible scenarios around how automation will transform all work; not just simply job losses to robots. Using ‘scenario modelling’, the study looks at the wider impact of rising inequality, weakening of workers’ rights, increased discrimination and bias and deepening geographical division.

The four scenarios explored include the ‘Big Tech’ economy, the ‘Precision’ economy, the ‘Exodus’ economy and the ‘Empathy’ economy. We look at the role that disabled people play, and the impact on them, under each of these scenarios.

The Big Tech Economy

This scenario looks at a world where technology develops at a rapid pace, and can transform products and services. The cost of manufacturing products and providing services will reduce, whilst unemployment and job insecurity increase.

Therefore, advances in technology can be both a blessing and a curse. Many manual and physical jobs may disappear, or be carried out very differently. Technology can be a great enabler for disabled people. Smart phones have already opened the world up for many people in terms of access to information, support with communication, navigating around spaces and so on. Automation in the workplace will make more tasks accessible for people with a variety of impairments.

The kind of skills that will be needed in a new, more automated, workplace include problem-solving, finding solutions, and the tasks that require a human touch. Disabled people are, by their very situations, experienced in overcoming barriers and solving problems that they face every day (the social model of disability*), and could be well-suited to these roles.

The Precision Economy

In this scenario, advances in technology are not quite as frighteningly rapid as in the previous scenario, but there will be a proliferation of sensors, collecting data on objects, people and the environment. The gig economy grows, and the rating system becomes embedded and pervasive in the workplace.

Again, this is both to be feared and welcomed. It would be invasive and mean we enjoy even less privacy. On the other hand, it could result in a more meritocratic workplace where people are judged on their performance without the bias of assessors. This levels the playing field for disabled people, who, with the right adjustments, can often out-perform their non-disabled colleagues.

Innovation in collecting and analysing big data will require a diversity of thinking styles, and this is where neuro-diverse people come into their own. Most successful tech companies, whether large global companies or smaller start-ups, are already understanding the value of hiring people with autism, and this awareness will only increase over time.

The Exodus Economy

This somewhat unattractive scenario considers a financial crash, similar to the scale of the crash in 2008, with further austerity. With increasing scepticism around capitalism, alternative ways of working are increasingly considered. Disabled people are already disproportionately highly represented in terms of self-employment and business ownership/creation, and are well-placed to lead on a movement to explore different and more innovative models of work.

There will also need to be new and radical ways to support people – disabled or otherwise – who are unable to find a place in these new ways of working.

The Empathy Economy

Whilst advances in technology continue to accelerate, this scenario imagines a greater public awareness of the human impact of this. Tech companies, and others, are keen to regulate the potential negative impact of automation, and the emphasis is to create solutions which work for everyone. Automation still happens, but for the benefit of people, and is managed in partnerships with workers and unions.

This scenario offers perhaps the most attractive option in many ways. It assumes that money saved through automation is put into sectors such as education and healthcare, and that the needs of people will be prioritised over the desire for profit. Technology will enable access to the workplace for more people, and a wider range of skills will be required, including a more diverse range of people.

The impact of all of these scenarios on disabled people – both in terms of opportunities and threats – is profound, and needs to be central to any discussion about the future of work.


* The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person's impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people.

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