Preparing young people for tomorrow’s workplace

We need to talk about how technology will affect the next generation of employees, says Martina Kane

The workplace of tomorrow has long been a topic of concern and speculation; the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee recently reported that the UK labour market risks falling behind the global pace due to a lack of technology such as automation. This followed calls by the OECD warning nations to prepare for the impact of artificial intelligence on job prospects.

We now live in a globalised world where jobs are being challenged, not only by competition from around the world but also by the risk posed by automation. Worryingly, the Office for National Statistics recently revealed that almost 1.5 million people in England are at high risk of losing their jobs to this change.

What is even more concerning is that the effects of automation will be felt most strongly by young people – those aged 20-24 are over 10 times more likely to be affected, with more than 15 per cent of 20-year-olds at high risk of losing their jobs. This trend has not gone unnoticed by this generation, with a poll by the charity Young Enterprise finding 59 per cent believed it would be harder to get a job as a result of advances in robotics.

The discussion surrounding the effects of automation and the changing job market are often centred around economics, due to clear and quantifiable links to employment. However, what is not being talked about are the consequences for the future health of our next generation – our nation’s greatest asset. 

Secure and rewarding work which offers scope for career growth is one of the key building blocks for a healthy future, and the potential impact of this changing workplace on health should not be underestimated. As the Marmot Review emphasised, employment is fundamental to a healthy life, and youth unemployment can have serious long-term effects on future employability and wages. This then puts long-term living standards and health at risk.

Good work offers stability, security and a regular income that allows individuals to afford a standard of living and feel a sense of identity in a community, protects against harmful effects of unemployment and reduces socio-economic inequality. Research by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the UCL Institute of Education has found that unemployed young people are more than twice as likely to suffer from mental ill-health compared to those in work, and ONS data reveals that unemployed people are more than twice as likely as people in employment to report a limiting long-standing illness or disability. 

As the Taylor Review highlighted, it is not only having a job that contributes to better health outcomes. The work must be rewarding. A recent study by the University of Manchester suggests that a poor-quality job is worse for health than unemployment. These findings make the rise of the technology-enabled gig economy and zero hours contracts even more concerning. While it provides flexibility for some workers, this style of insecure working risks impacting negatively on young people’s mental and physical wellbeing – and with young people making up a third of this new workforce, it is them who are drawing the short straw.

The precarious position in which young people find themselves when it comes to employment is not lost on them. Through our conversations with young people around the UK as part of the Young People’s Future Health inquiry we have found that many do not feel as though they are being prepared for the world of work that awaits them.

We are preparing to publish a series of policy recommendations for the government to address the challenges facing the next generation. Investing in the future of young people needs to be at the heart of policy, not only to secure a prosperous future for the country but a healthy future for the next generation. 

Martina Kane is policy lead for the Health Foundation’s Young People’s Future Health inquiry