It’s easy to be gloomy about the future of work.
Between warnings about the imminent rise of job-stealing robots and policymakers’ constant struggle to keep abreast of changing employment patterns, it can seem from the news as though society is sliding inevitably towards reduced prosperity and greater anxiety.
It’s true that big challenges lie ahead. But at a dinner in Oxford cohosted by Apolitical, Care.com and The Conduit, academics, business leaders and policy experts who gathered to talk about working life in the future suggested some reasons to feel more positive.
Here are some of their thoughts:
A good problem to have
Daniel Susskind, Oxford economist and bestselling author of The Future of the Professions
“For most of human history,” Susskind said in his talk, “one economic problem has dominated, which is: if we think of the economy as a pie, the challenge has been how to make the pie large enough for everyone to live on.”
In the last few hundred years, he added, “those economic pies around the world have exploded in size.” Now, global GDP per capita is about $10,150, Susskind said, but 2000 years ago, it was more like a few hundred dollars.
In the coming decades, however, as technology renders many jobs obsolete, a new issue will arise.
“We’re going to solve one economic problem — which is how to make the pie large enough for everyone to live on. But we’re going to have replaced it with another which is how to make sure that everyone gets a slice… when our traditional mechanism for slicing up the economic pie, the work that people do, might wither away and perhaps disappear.”
“Solving this problem won’t be easy, but I think it’s important to remember that that distribution problem is a far better problem to have than the one that haunted our ancestors for centuries which was how to make that pie big enough in the first place.”
Ending hiring bias
Kate Glazebrook, Founder & CEO of Applied, a fair hiring platform created by the Behavioural Insights Team
Anyone trying to hire the best staff has a problem, according to Glazebrook, and it’s inside their own head. “20 to 30 years’ worth of research suggests that very small, extraneous details… seem to influence how we perceive talent,” she said.
“All of us are trying to be our best selves every day. But the reality is, down to the very distances in the neurons… it is hard to rewire the brain.”
But since setting up Applied, Glazebrook has started testing out interventions that could help people eliminate bias from their recruitment processes. These range from name-blind applications — “which have become, thankfully I think, quite popular nowadays” — to allowing recruiters to view CVs “horizontally”, with multiple candidates’ information under each section displayed together.
“19th century hiring practices involved shaking hands and talking about whether or not you follow the same football team or play polo together at weekends,” Glazebrook said, “then there’s been a series of discussions… [about whether] we need to just push for full blown quotas.”
“My view is: there’s a whole plethora of very interesting interventions we can do in between, that still preserve the concept of meritocracy, but reduce the risk that bias influences the way you understand talent.”
Unlocking hidden trillions
Sheila Marcelo, Founder, Chairwoman and CEO of family care platform Care.com
“One of the things that I always ask myself,” Marcelo said, “is what can create 28 trillion dollars in GDP?”
The answer, according to one Mckinsey report, is women; if disproportionate restrictions on women working and otherwise participating in society were removed, it would boost global GDP by 26%, that research found.
For Marcelo, a big part of the answer of how to get there is changing the way we see care: enabling women who want to work to access care for their families, and making sure that those who work in the care sector are well paid and valued.
“It’s so important to think about care not as a gender issue, not as a soft issue,” Marcelo said. For example, she pointed out that 90% of a child’s brain development happens before it is five, meaning inadequate care can irrevocably mar someone’s potential.
But she is helping to support solutions, from a groundbreaking benefits package for gig economy care workers, to programs training refugees to be caregivers.
“That’s the future of work: it’s care,” she said.
Taking Africa solar
Xavier Helgesen, Co-Founder & CEO of OffGrid Electric
Helgesen began with a problem facing Africa that’s very different to those on the horizon for Europe or North America. “There’s a youth boom in Africa,” he said, with 60% of the continent’s 1.2billion population under the age of 25.
“What this translates to is a huge youth unemployment crunch,” he said. Youth unemployment across the continent stood at almost 30% in 2016.
While European governments fret about their ageing populations, many African countries have more young people than they know what to do with, raising fears that many will be locked into low standards of living. Meanwhile, the continent also faces substantial energy challenges.
But, Helgesen said, OffGrid Electric, which sells solar technology to homes in rural Tanzania and Rwanda and currently provides electricity to almost one million people, has given him hope on both counts.
“What’s always been so exciting for me about solar is its democratisation of the production of energy, which is therefore the production of almost all other forms of economic wealth,” he said.
As for his workforce, he said: “We have a direct sales force of over 1000 young Africans.”
“These guys, these girls, are just some of the most remarkable, resilient, tough people I’ve ever seen, and what’s exciting to me is we’re taking some of that [current] spend on petroleum and basically putting it in their pockets as sales commissions to sell renewable energy to their fellow citizens.”
And what about government?
Governments faced with looming labour market challenges might make some missteps. But we’ve also found plenty of examples of public servants stepping up to the plate.
In Sweden, a well-honed system of co-operation between employers and trade unions means that 85% of workers who get laid off are re-employed within a year. That could provide a useful model for other nations, especially with labour market churn expected to rise in the coming decades.
Other governments are trying out bold experiments with adult skills training — a crucial part of any response to the likely disappearance of some categories of jobs and the emergence of others.
In France, a new system of personalised vocational trying is in its infancy, but the OECD, which thinks it has great promise, is watching closely. In Appalachia, in America’s bruised rust belt, a regional government body is retraining workers in coding while drawing in new tech jobs. In Austin, Texas, the city government is thinking about how to attract not just the flashiest businesses, but those which provide all-important “middle-skill jobs.”
And grander visions are being explored, too.
As I outlined in a talk at the future of work dinner, we’re some way away from knowing how a Universal Basic Income might turn out in practice.
But from cash transfer trials in Kenya to Finland’s (now-aborted) experiment with unconditional payments to the unemployed, we are starting to build up a picture of how a less bureaucratic, more universal system of state redistribution might work. That evidence could prove invaluable if the more pessimistic predictions about technological unemployment come true.
So we can’t predict the future. But we know it’s not all bleak. Keep coming back to Apolitical to find out how governments are facing it head on.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Spencer Cooper)