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Hold on The world of work is changing

The Government has asked Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive at the Royal Society of Arts, to prepare an independent report on changing working practices. It is a chance for some radical thinking.

The internet came first, then the mobile phone. Both have fundamentally changed the world of work. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning promise much greater change.

There is no doubt that digitalisation has made us much more efficient, particularly compared to when I started work as a ‘baby boomer’ back in 1974. Assignments that then took a week now take just a few days, hours even. But this raises issues for those of us facing the world of work in the coming years.

There are not many tasks that cannot be done quicker and more efficiently by a machine. Indeed, many existing jobs and roles are at risk from digitalisation - legal, accounting, translation and retail to name but a few.

This has significant implications for society as a whole.

The Taylor Report

The UK Government has asked Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive at the Royal Society of Arts, to prepare an independent report, A Review of Modern Employment, to start to address those issues. This is important – the division between those in the labour market perceived to be winners or losers is as wide today as it has ever been.

Taylor’s report is using three challenges to structure its thinking:

  • The need to tackle exploitation;
  • To try to bring clarity to employment rights and rules; and
  • To explore the underlying incentives that shape our labour market.

The report should be published later this year, and I hope that it will not only identify the areas of work that will be at risk from digitalisation, but also focus on those areas that are likely to grow – the caring and creative sectors being two good examples.

At the individual level, the effect of digitalisation has had a profound effect. The pressure we always seem to be under to perform has created increased stress and stress related illness. Prince William and Harry are bringing mental health issues to the fore.

We also see the phenomenon of the ‘gig economy’ and the rise in quasi self-employment.

Taylor’s report will look at the protections afforded to workers in such circumstances - zero hour contracts, tax and national insurance deductions, holiday pay, sickness and health arrangements are all minefields in today’s world of work. Undoubtedly the insecurity people feel in such arrangements can only fuel exploitation and stress at an individual and family level.

Radical thinking

Some themes I would like to see emerge from this debate would include:

  • Rules to prevent exploitation of the workforce – particularly around the move from ‘employed’ to ‘quasi self-employed’.
  • The idea of a Universal Basic Income for all citizens – this is a potential route to help alleviate poverty, particularly if workers are likely to be replaced by robots. It is an idea being supported by many influential technology industry leaders, and an idea whose time may soon come. The ICAEW publication ‘How Might we implement a Citizen’s Income’ makes the point that the question is no longer whether this is desirable, but when.
  • A focus on not just the quantity of work but quality and intrinsic value of what we do in future. At present and by way of example, we value a qualified nurse or teacher less than a lawyer or an accountant – is that right?

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