What do we want the future of work to look like? This may seem like an odd question to ask as we face the spectre of mass unemployment. But recent challenges and the transformation of work have revealed the extent of equity gaps across the country and the pressing need for a unifying vision: a future-oriented, people-centred approach to our rebuild, founded on the principle of creating and protecting good work.
To do this, we have to see, value and prioritise work in a new "post-pandemic" way. Work is not only an immediate source of income, and the labour market is more than the most fundamental institution of capitalism. Work is – or rather it should be – the glue that binds people and communities together, offering opportunities for people to flourish and progress, shaping people’s lives as much as their living standards. These characteristics play out in what Andy Haldane has described as "social capital", in our sense of "inclusion" and willingness to trust social institutions, and in our voting behaviours, as research at the Institute for the Future of Work has shown.
So, when the pandemic threatens the labour market, and when inequalities of access, conditions and quality of work grow, this threatens social solidarity and democratic institutions just as much as prosperity. The threat is complicated, and made more pronounced, by the fact that Covid-19 has hit us amid one of the greatest technological transformations since industrialisation, as Michael Gove recognised in his Ditchley Lecture in June. And now, the pace of the technological revolution is picking up.
We are entering a sharp recession, with likely record levels of unemployment, but fiscal policy measures to meet the drop in demand – a Keynesian type of unemployment – will be shown to be inadequate before the year is out. Instead, we need an ambitious, holistic, joined-up suite of policy measures right across government departments which break down the traditional barriers between social and economic policies.
These must respond, first, to the structural economic transformation associated with automation overlaid by Covid-19 (as our Chair Nobelist Chris Pissarides discusses here) Second, they must respond to the social impacts experienced -and rightly feared - by people and communities across the country. Both demand a new focus on promoting equality by improving access, conditions and quality of work in ways which address entrenched structural inequalities.
It is already clear that vulnerable groups, especially low-income workers, have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 both directly, in terms of exposure, and indirectly, in terms of falling employment, hours of work and government protection. Low-income workers are more likely to be black, from a minority group, women or to be young. These different types of work and health inequality are set to increase without aligned, "pincer-like" interventions across financial, health, business, work and welfare, education spheres.
Instead, we have seen a striking disconnect between departmental response to the pandemic. While the chancellor has launched his "plan for jobs", the Department for Work and Pensions has reintroduced harsh sanctions which require the newly unemployed to prove they are looking for work which does not yet exist. The home secretary’s new health and care visa excluded care workers from the category of skilled worker, just as the health secretary highlighted the need to revalue social care work. And technology grants and policy, as well as competition law, do not require any consideration of the impact on equality or good work, in spite of the Cabinet Office’s commitment to address structural inequalities.
In an article for the New York Times, Michael Sandel, the public philosopher and Future of Work commissioner, argues that the pandemic has scrambled everyone’s social and economic roles in a way which demands a moral and political renewal as we mobilise to confront it. The way we create change in the workplace (new technology, regulation, basic standards), think about work and the rewards of work, and how we respond to inequality, will determine the legacy of this wrenching episode.
Perhaps we should think about this as the "lessons of Leicester." The Future of Work Commission hosted a workshop with Leicester’s Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures in January 2017 on the ticking time bomb and turned backs of Leicester’s sweatshops. We reached out to the Joint Committee on Human Rights as a result, leading to a fact-finding mission in March. Sarah O’ Connor’s ground-breaking investigative journalism into Leicester’s dark factories followed.
The human, health and economic cost of inaction have been huge. And meanwhile, sales continue to boom on Amazon, making Jeff Bezos £13bn richer in a single day in July in the US, on the backs of British factory, warehouse and delivery workers.
Leicester must not be a bellwether for the UK. We must now act on the lessons the city has learned, recognising that there can be no one silver bullet but a focus on creating and protecting good work, as a central, cross-cutting, policy objective is the next best thing.
Work connects people’s lives and living standards with the health of the nation, binding social and economic policies, and uniting the best thinking on health and welfare, industrial strategy and labour, technology and education. Leicester needs a multi-pronged attack.
The only realistic way to focus and coordinate this response is to establish a cross-department, cross-disciplinary Future of Work or "disruption" council to co-develop a Future of Work Strategy with academics, business, and unions, as the Institute for the Future of Work has modelled. Building on the new Digital Regulation Cooperation forum, the council could work with a cross-regulatory group, enabling it to connect basic standards for labour with competition, align technology and equality laws, and support job creation with and skills policy.
Michael Sandel has asked, "are we all in this together?" The answer must be yes.
Anna Thomas is director of the Institute for the Future of Work think tank