It sometimes feels as if nothing concrete has happened in UK politics in the three years since the British public voted to leave the EU. But political stasis aside, this week alone, we were reminded by the ONS that we’re living increasingly longer lives, and The Times even predicted that women will soon be leaving men behind to head off and live in space. Some of the most basic assumptions about our lives’ likely opportunities and challenges have changed rapidly over the past decades, and are set to continue doing so apace.
One particular area of ongoing change is the UK labour market. On a simplistic understanding, people here have never worked more: employment is at a record high; unemployment is at pretty much a record low. The amount of people who are self employed also continues to rise. And the workforce is growing better educated and much more diverse, with revolutionary new skills and attitudes. It follows that the jobs that employers want workers to do — and the jobs that people increasingly create for themselves — are also changing, faster than ever. This, of course, is not least thanks to the latest advances in automation, and the possibilities for mutually beneficial exchange that have opened up through instant online accessibility in a hyperglobalised world.
Now, some see technological advancement, globalisation, and attitudinal shifts as a threat. They fear the rise of new automation and AI; they are frightened by the electric dreams of a sci-fi future. But what happens next — whether the robots steal our jobs, or whether we harness the opportunities afforded by their labour to free up our time for different kinds of work or other valuable pursuits — will depend on what we need and want. After all, we have responded to life-changing developments many times before; the horse economy of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century must have seemed an inevitable keeper, back then. Doom-mongering politicians and theorists often seem to forget that humankind has agency and is capable of reflection and mitigation.
But that’s not to say there’s no place here for policy discussion. From occupational licensing to pension enrolment, state regulation is ever expansive, and with it come heavy obligations on both employers and workers. Trade unions, occupational bodies, governments, and international organisations, attempting to impose order in times of change, are constantly undermined by innovation and entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, we see increasing societal demands for greater recognition and assessment of varying understandings of equality and fairness in the world of work — whether related to pay comparisons or tax contributions — and for combined commitment to goals around decarbonisation and other environmental concerns.
Underlying questions about the fundamental importance of work too often remain forgotten. Yet they are central to any proper assessment of the trade-offs involved in addressing these kinds of demands. It seems sadly easy to forget the past horrors of unemployment, and its effects, which are deeper than simply the financial. For those us interested in freedom, for instance, what impact does work — or the lack of it — have on our liberty? Do we have a right to work? And if so, what are the correlative obligations of others around us? If we take a liberal approach to considering what a good society — and a good life — might be, then how should we assess the value of work? Amartya Sen argues that the kind of economic development, within which work plays such a key role, that leads to growth in GDP and individual incomes is a principal means of furthering freedom. But to what extent is work an important end in itself, if we strongly value individual and societal freedom? What role should work play in a highly developed and liberal society?
Clearly, many pressing questions remain. I’m delighted, therefore, that the initiative I direct, FREER — having published a paper last year entitled Freer Working, by Rachel Maclean MP — is entering into the fray on this important topic, for the long term. In partnership with our friends at IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed), we have set up a landmark Work Futures Group, which was launched on Monday night in Westminster. The FREER-IPSE group, which will focus on flexibility, choice, and fulfilment in work, will run between June and December of this year, and will be chaired by the eminent labour economist Professor Len Shackleton.
The group’s work will fit into four general areas: flexibility, self-employment, and generational attitudes; automation and AI; tax, pay, and pensions; and education and skills. We’re currently inviting experts on these topics — including cross-party politicians, academics, entrepreneurs and business people, policy thinkers, and more — to join us for round-table discussions and evidence sessions over the coming months.
As Professor Shackleton outlined at the group’s launch on Monday night, “this enquiry aims to examine recent changes in the world of work, and assess whether appropriate government policy can be designed to boost productivity, real incomes, and an appropriate work-life balance. In doing so, we recognise that there is no determinate future we can ‘plan’ for, but a range of possible ‘futures’, some of which may be more attractive than others. We also recognise that in many areas, the answer may be for government to do less, and better, rather than ever-growing intervention”.
Rebecca Lowe is director of FREER
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