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Four futures of work


What is the future for older people in the UK workplace as the British economy grapples with rapid technological change? How will the introduction of automation and AI have an impact on extended working lives?  A new report from the RSA’s Future Work Centre gives us some useful general scenarios. While not aimed specifically at an ageing workforce, its message will nevertheless leave many older workers feeling a sense of dread. 

The RSA report, entitled The Four Futures of Work: Coping with uncertainty in an age of radical technologies, was developed in partnership with Arup using a method called Morphological Analysis. The study modelled four different scenarios for the future of work in 2035 – each with positive and negative aspects, reflecting increasingly widespread scepticism about what new technologies will bring to the workplace in terms of rewards, job security and societal gain. 

A new machine age

The first scenario - The Big Tech Economy - describes a world ‘where most technologies develop at a rapid pace, from self-driving cars to additive manufacturing. A new machine age delivers significant improvements in the quality of products and public services, while the cost of everyday goods including transport and energy plummets’.

So far so good for an ageing society reliant on quality public services and useful innovations such as autonomous vehicles while keeping bills down. But wait. The scenario continues: ‘However, unemployment and economic insecurity creep upwards, and the spoils of growth are offshored and concentrated in a handful of US and Chinese tech behemoths. The dizzying pace of change takes workers and unions by surprise, leaving them largely incapable of responding’. Big Tech is likely to continue to be socially divisive, the spoils of growth won’t be shared and work may be scarce and even unattainable for many de-skilled older people.

The second scenario is called The Precision Economy and portrays what the report authors describe as ‘a future of hyper surveillance’. They explain: ‘Technological progress is moderate, but a proliferation of sensors allows firms to create value by capturing and analysing more information on objects, people and the environment. Gig platforms take on more prominence and rating systems become pervasive in the workplace.’

If this all sounds a little like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, consider that precision data capture on performance might help to create more supportive work environments for an ageing workforce and super-efficient job platforms might keep more people economic productive for longer. The report continues: ‘While some lament these trends as invasive, removing agency from workers and creating overly competitive workplace cultures, others believe they have ushered in a more meritocratic society where effort is more generously rewarded. A hyper connected society also leads to wider positive spill overs, with less waste as fewer resources are left idle.’

Economic slowdown

There is always a doomsday scenario in any future-gazing exercise of this type: the RSA report features The Exodus Economy, characterised by an economic slowdown and a crash on the scale of 2008 which keeps the UK trapped in a low skilled, low productivity and low pay cul-de-sac.

The studys explains: ‘Faced with another bout of austerity, workers lose faith in the ability of capitalism to improve their lives, and alternative economic models gather interest. Cooperatives and mutuals emerge in large numbers to serve people’s core economic needs in food, energy and banking. While some workers struggle on poverty wages, others discover ways to live more self-sufficiently, including by moving away from urban areas.’ Sounds familiar? Some aspects of this scenario are already being enacted, in which the dynamics around ageing and inter-generational fairness are prominent.

The final scenario is called The Empathy Economy and envisages ‘a future of responsible stewardship’. According to the report, ‘Technology advances at a clip, but so too does public awareness of its dangers. Tech companies self-regulate to stem concerns and work hand in hand with external stakeholders to create new products that work on everyone’s terms. Automation takes places at a modest scale but is carefully managed in partnership with workers and unions.’

Here at last is a warmer glow for an ageing society as disposable income in a time of high employment flows into ‘empathy sectors’ like education, care and entertainment. But even here there are concerns around how the strain of always being empathic and engaged can take its toll.

Right across the piece, it seems, new digital technologies appear as a double-edged sword, their undoubted benefits in the workplace offset by the spectre of inequality, intrusion into privacy, low pay and low mental wellbeing. One thing is for certain: a bit like the early decades of the 20th century when the industrial technologies of the typewriter, telephone, light bulb and elevator shifted the scenery, we’re in for a wild ride in the world of work however things turn out.


About the Author

Jeremy Myerson is Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, Director of WORKTECH Academy and an Honorary Fellow at Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.                                                       


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