What shapes the future of work?

27 Sep 2018 By Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber explains what recent history and the current economic climate can teach us about where the world of work is heading

As I see it, there are three major drivers shaping the future of work:

The historical legacy

Our immediate legacy relates to the recent economic recession and the need to address the 30 per cent productivity gap with many of our international competitors. This isn’t just about what’s happening to businesses, but also to people. A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found workers are £800 a year worse off than a year ago.

In order to catch up with where we should be, it is said we need to be more flexible as an economy and less fearful of what the future holds. But does this mean adopting more flexible, but potentially insecure working practices, and if so, what protection will workers get? The Carnegie report on measuring 'good work' can give us some basic principles to adhere to.

And what do industrial revolutions one, two and three tell us about what to expect from the fourth one? Will whole swathes of workers be put out of work, as some predict, due to the rise in automation? 

Today’s weather system

While much of the current workplace policy focus is understandably on Brexit, skills shortages and the growth in self-employment, many workplaces are also very preoccupied with the need for cultural reinvention. The media outcry around the size of the gender pay gap and the widespread reports of sexual harassment at work has made us realise that many of the stereotypes and gender norms from the past now feel very inappropriate.

Part of today’s critical response involves a complete rethink of gender politics, with a specific call for more flexible working and more training in unconscious bias.

There is a tangible impatience that change must happen quickly – certainly more quickly than the 35 years it may take to bridge the gender pay gap.

The road map to tomorrow

The kind of jobs we will create in the future may depend on whether we take the low road or the high road to business success. History suggests that the low road is based upon a short-term approach to investment, planning and employee wellbeing. The high road has a longer-term vision of an ambitious industrial strategy which builds skills and improves management competency.

In terms of our expectations and experience of work, this latter approach resonates with a growing call for sustainable growth based upon the right values. Surely the strongest argument for doing the right thing – like promoting diverse and inclusive workplaces – cannot be based purely on the business case? We should not have to continue to be apologists for caring about people as well as the business. And we should not shy away from the fact that creating good jobs for all may be a longer-term project than we would hope.

High road or low road?

I think there is a middle road, and it is the one most people are likely to take. On this road there is a balance between the need for business flexibility and the principles of good work; the robots augment our jobs rather than take them away; and both individuals and groups embrace new social platforms in order to be heard loud and clear.

It is a future where the extremes of what work turn into inform our decision-making but do not dictate them. 

Sir Brendan Barber is chair of Acas. Brendan will be discussing the future of work at the Acas National Conference on 10 October

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