The future of work

The future of work

I’ve been fascinated by work and books theorising the changing nature of work since I started my PhD on work and poverty in 1998. Since then I have mainly read books on low-paid work and the lives of people who have to get by in jobs that barely enable them to make ends meet. After a gap of some years it was time this year to catch up on what more recent books were saying about the future of work.

Whilst we know that the nature of work is changing, there is a live and ongoing debate about the extent to which we are experiencing, and will continue to experience, a fundamental shift in the way work is constituted. Commentators such as Richard Sennett, Manuel Castells and Ulrich Beck have described a ‘transformation of work’. Predictions of future change have included the end of salaried employment, fragmentation of labour markets and the atomisation of the experience of work. The rise of technology is said in Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee to be leading to a new era, where future economic growth is not necessarily linked to employment growth. 

However, others have argued that this narrative of the transformation of work overstates the impact of technological change on the labour market, and generalises from the minority experience in the workforce represented by temporary, casual and part-time employment. Kevin Doogan argues in New Capitalism?: The transformation of work that there is little evidence to substantiate claims of transformation. He argues that prior to the recession, average job stability had not declined: long-term employment had increased, labour market attachment had increased for some groups, the significance of temporary employment has been overstated, and that a false homogeneity had been attributed to atypical employment (including part-time, temporary and casual work). In this view the transformativity of technological change has been overstated, partly as the labour market acts as both a conductor of, and an insulator against, change.

Other recent books have speculated on various scenarios of what the future of work might look like and how governments can prepare for it. Jim Clifton in The Coming Jobs War argues that job creation of the future will mainly come down to education systems producing the kind of workers that the economy needs. Lynda Gratton in The Shift: the future of work is already here imagines various scenarios for what the future of work might look like. She paints a picture of a world of increased competition where the boundaries of ‘work’ and ‘life’ are further blurred, and where technology enables work to become even more intensified.

However, as Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth argue in their edited collection The Labour Market in Winter, key questions remain on whether changes in technology mean that we face a future of jobless growth, the extent to which people will have jobs (as opposed to work) in the future, what jobs might look like and what skills they will demand, and whether there will be ‘enough’ ‘quality’ jobs.

It seems that the jury is still out on the future of work.