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Home Opinion What future for work?
Automation • Future Jobs • Skills

What future for work?

Peter Glover, Helen Beck, Vicki Belt & Duncan Brown - 14 May 2014

The global labour market in 2030 is likely to be highly competitive. Indeed, structural changes in the labour market are already making it increasingly difficult for young people to get into work and progress. Strategic relationships with employers and training providers are thus vital to ensure that the right skills needed by business for a rapidly changing environment are developed and provided

At the UK Commission for Employment and Skills our mission is to transform approaches to skills investment to drive enterprise, jobs and growth. One of our objectives is to provide world-class labour market intelligence to help businesses and people in the UK make the best choices to achieve their ambitions.

Although we can never know what is around the corner – an assessment of the labour market of the future, backed by extensive and robust research, can challenge our thinking in a constructive, creative way, and inform the decisions we take today. These decisions are critical in understanding the challenges and opportunities individuals and businesses are likely to face. And help in starting the groundwork to position ourselves for the future world of work.

The Future of Work study, carried out on our behalf by Z_punkt The Foresight Company and the University of South Wales, looks ahead to the labour market of 2030.

The purpose of this study isn’t to predict a specific future. Instead it assesses the emerging trends that will shape future jobs and skills. It identifies key areas of uncertainty (potential disruptions) that could throw these trends off course and presents four alternative scenarios of the future of work in the UK, exploring possible implications in relation to specific key UK industrial sectors1.

Care is needed. Twenty years ago there was widespread belief that the defining feature of the labour market would be radically reduced working hours and increased leisure time. Fast forward to 2014 - the year in which mobile is set to overtake desktop to access the Internet, and our work and leisure hours are increasingly blurred.

That all said, if current trends do run a steady path, in 2030 the UK force will be multi-generational, with four generations working side by side, older and more international. Women will play a stronger role in the workforce and technology will pervade work environments everywhere.

The global labour market in 2030 is likely to be highly competitive, more virtual and interconnected than ever before. While the highly skilled will push for a better work-life balance, many others will experience increasing insecurity of employment and income. A much smaller group of employees are likely to enjoy long-term contracts. The polarisation between those in low pay, low skilled jobs and high pay, high skills jobs is expected to become even more entrenched.  

However, focusing on trends only takes our thinking so far. Any outlook on the future needs to account for possible disruptive events – those uncertainties that will lead to a sharp deviation from the path of business-as-usual.

The Future of Work selects ten such disruptions for their relevance and plausibility to the UK context in 2030.

For example, zero hour contracts and other forms of flexible arrangements, have received a lot of attention in the UK press recently. Although there is disagreement about their scale and implications, the general consensus is that they are increasing in importance. If zero hour contracts became the norm in 2030 – what would the labour market look like? Would employers feel less inclined to invest in training and skills development under such arrangements?

Robotics and artificial intelligence are also subjects that command significant media attention. Only recently a forecast suggested that such technologies could automate more than 40 per cent of jobs in the US within two decades, extending beyond those routine clerical jobs that are already being displaced to include higher level professional jobs. If this was the case, what would a radical automation of professional tasks mean for a UK labour market?

The combination of trends and disruptions identified by the study, together with four scenarios of the UK labour market in 2030, provide clues on the key areas that employers, individuals, education providers and policy makers should focus their time, energy and resources on.

To highlight possible actions for policy makers, and the study certainly does not prescribe definitive solutions, concentrating instead on points for reflection and debate, it is likely that traditional models of public policy will no longer be fit for purpose.

Instead there will be increasing pressure to ensure a better alignment of public and private investment to maximise the prospects for jobs and growth. This isn’t a task for government alone. Strategic relationships with employers and training providers will be vital to ensure that the right skills needed by business for a rapidly changing environment are developed and provided. This also means enabling employers to take a greater degree of leadership and control of the education and training system.

Newly emerging business fields are likely to create skills vacuums that arise at a very fast race outpacing the ability of individual organisations to respond. To make an effective response, businesses may need to collaborate, perhaps on an industry-wide scale. Again, there is a role here for government in facilitating and supporting these processes of engagement as working alone it cannot solve the problem.  

In the future, new attitudes and behaviours will be needed by individuals and businesses founded on flexibility, resilience, collaboration, entrepreneurism and creativity. Specific skills will be at a premium, including resourcefulness, cognitive skills (such as problem solving) and the core business skills for project based employment. Above all, the ability to respond to continuous change will be critical.

Those that can’t access new skills, or adapt those they do have, face being left behind. Indeed, those that are vulnerable now are likely to be more exposed in the future, facing fewer opportunities and weakening job security.

In this context, and as the balance of power shifts increasingly to employers, a key task for policy makers will be in creating the conditions to avoid a race to the bottom in labour standards. It will be crucial to put in place a comprehensive, long-term strategy to equip today’s low skilled workers with the skills they need to respond to tomorrow’s labour market.

Finally, structural changes in the labour market are already making it increasingly difficult for young people to get into work and progress. Government has a leading role to play in facilitating the inclusion of young people in a challenging labour market. For instance, by collaborating with employers to develop sustainable pathways into the world of work and in empowering individuals though access to high quality careers and training information and advice.

A study of this kind can’t provide definitive answers. It does however contribute a uniquely rich breadth and depth of information for us all to think about. To be properly prepared for the future our policies and plans need to be realistic, robust and ready to adapt to what is likely to be a landscape of rapid and profound change.

Peter Glover is senior research manager; Helen Beck is research manager; Vicki Belt is senior manager – research; and Duncan Brown is senior manager – research and technical at the UK Commission for Employment & Skills (UKCES).


1 The sectors are health and social care, professional and business services, retail and logistics, education, manufacturing, creative and digital and construction. Between them they account for a large proportion of jobs and economic output in the UK.

Tags: Peter Glover , Helen Beck , Vicki Belt , Duncan Brown , Opinion , Inequality , economy , society , equality , opportunity , Social Mobility , Jobs , Welfare , Work , Minimum Wage , Living Wage , Wages , Pensions , Childcare , Contributory Benefits , Flexicurity , Jobs , Contracts , 0-hour Contracts , Zero Hour Contracts , Labour Market , Skills , Training , Education , Technology , Innovation , Automation , Growth , Employers , ETS , Education and Training System , Education & Training System , Business , Collaboration ,

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