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Preparing for Tomorrow: The Future of Work

Policy@Manchester

5 min read Partner content

A combination of the COVID pandemic, an ageing workforce, and new technology is fundamentally changing how, why, and where we work. A new collection of research articles from Policy@Manchester, The University of Manchester’s policy engagement unit, explores these changes and sets out the practical policy steps that can help the nation respond.

The nature of work has shifted in the last few years, accelerated by the disruption of a COVID pandemic that not only permanently changed the working patterns of millions but also prompted many people to reassess the role work plays in their lives.  

Many of those changes are now embedded in working practices. It has led to a new normal of remote and hybrid working and also forced employers to look at how they recruit and support staff for different careers.

And there is no sign that the disruption will end. Technology, particularly the rapid expansion of AI, is continuing to pose challenges to businesses, workers, and policymakers. Indeed, at the recent Bletchley Park Summit, Elon Musk told the Prime Minister that new emerging technology could potentially spell the end for all traditional jobs.

As the global debate about the changing world of work gathers momentum, it is vital that policymakers have access to evidence-based approaches that both map the transformation underway and manage its potential impact. It is only by adopting robust, evidence-led approaches that the UK will be able to navigate a complex and uncertain future.

Now, a new report produced by Policy@Manchester, The University of Manchester’s policy engagement unit, seeks to provide new insight to support policymakers. Working Futures is a collection of thought-provoking articles that covers a diverse range of topics including pay, conditions, work security, digitisation, and the workplace experiences of women and older people.

Writing in the foreword to the report, Naomi Clayton, Deputy Director at Learning and Work Institute explains that the changing world of work cannot be dismissed as a challenge for tomorrow. Instead, she says, those changes are taking effect right now - impacting on businesses and individuals across the UK.

“Automation and AI, digitalisation, remote working, environmental change, and ageing are having profound impacts on the world of work,” Clayton writes. “We talk about the ‘future’ of work, but these trends are already impacting the jobs people do, how we work, where we work, when we work, and the skills people need for work.”

Working Futures has a particular focus on the way that ongoing changes may disproportionately impact on groups that are already disadvantaged in the labour market. It is an area of research that has been welcomed by parliamentarians.

Kirsten Oswald MP is the Scottish National Party MP for East Renfrewshire and speaks for the party on Equalities and Women. She told PoliticsHome that there is a risk that ongoing changes to the world of work could exacerbate inequalities that already exist. Oswald would like to see action now that mitigates that risk and helps deliver a fair and inclusive labour market for everyone.

“Technology, AI, and changes in what consumers and society demand, coupled with the impact of COVID-19 on how we work, mean continued change is inevitable.,” she tells us. “If we don’t want to risk increased polarisation and an explosion in low-wage high-turnover jobs, we need to act to secure the Future of Work in a way that will benefit society.”

The Policy@Manchester report explores issues that cut across functions and responsibilities of every part of government, identifying critical trends that will shape the future for all of us. The researchers provide insight into the profound changes that are affecting workers across several sectors, as well as specific groups and communities.

Stephen McPartland MP, who is a member of the Future of Work APPG, welcomed the new report as an important contribution to building a deeper understanding of the challenges that are already shaping working life for millions of Britons.

“Every single one of us is currently living through some of the most profound, rapid, and far-reaching changes in human history,” he says. “Nowhere is that more apparent than in the nation’s workplaces. The new Working Futures report produced by University of Manchester researchers contains a wealth of robust, evidence-based research that can shape policy responses and help us prepare for a very different future.”

Whilst acknowledging the risks that rapid change poses to many groups already experiencing labour market inequalities, Naomi Clayton also believes there is now an opportunity to put responses in place that can ensure a fairer transition. However, for that to happen she would like to see coordinated action that brings together a range of stakeholders.

“Ensuring labour market inequalities don’t widen further and more ‘good jobs’ are available to more people means developing a comprehensive, cross-government strategy for good work with employers and trade unions,” she writes. “Policymakers should also explore how innovation and technological developments can be shaped, in part through regulation, to ensure as many workers benefit as possible.”

It is a view that Kirsten Oswald MP shares, calling for action from government that hardwires equality into the changes that are continuing to transform the workplace.

“Wellbeing, fair work, flexibility, and the smart use of technology and AI across all job sectors are the way forward. That will require determined action from the government, and a willingness to let go of outmoded ideas about what work will look like,” she tells PoliticsHome. “Positive change is not inevitable, but taking the steps to deliver structures to support a better working future will pay dividends across society.”

Developing those structures requires new thinking and a thorough understanding of the complexity of emerging challenges. It is that debate that Policy@Manchester’s Working Futures report has stepped into, providing the evidence and the new ideas that can contribute to shaping future policy.

For more information about ‘Working Futures’ and to read the collection of thought leadership pieces from Policy@Manchester, please click here.

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