We have seen the rise of living standards and work opportunities for most people, but global trends have affected the world of work and the good times may be coming to an end…
I’m delighted to say that I have recently become a father for the first time, and feel all the joy and love which every parent feels when they bring new life to the world. Naturally my baby girl Sophia is perfect in every way, although with parenthood comes a whole new level of anxiety and worry which my non-parent life just could not appreciate.
While pondering the miracle of life and how lucky I am, come thoughts about what kind of world Sophia will grow into.
Since WWII, we have lived through an unprecedented era of economic growth in western Europe – seeing the rise of living standards and work opportunities for most people, along with better education, improved health and longer life expectancies. It’s fair to say that for most us in the UK and western Europe (with notable exceptions), the big picture is that the last 60 years has been one of the best times to live.
But is this era breaking down and coming to an end? One could point to many anxieties: the effects of global warming, China’s economic rise, indiscriminate terrorism by fundamentalists, lower economic growth, and the rise of nationalism within the countries of the EU and the UK. The list goes on.
These recent global trends have affected the world of work. Over the last few years there has been a significant increase in insecure and poorly paid work (through agency, part-time and zero-hour working), a growing divide between the richest and the rest, increasing cost of education, decreasing work benefits such as secure pensions except for the few. Frankly, I can’t see this trend reversing and, sadly, they affect the existing poor and minorities more than others.
The threat of automation
But don’t just think that it is the lower paid and less well educated who will be most affected. In future the tide of automation will hit professional services, where computers and machines will in many areas be able to give sensible advice at hugely reduced cost. Huge swathes of professions (including lawyers) will be affected.
Should we be alarmed? Well, possibly. But our experience tells us that, although automation destroys large swathes of work, it also creates jobs and opportunities elsewhere – we just don’t know where or what they will be.
The trick is to have a wide range of skills, experience and education so as to be in a position to take advantage of them when they do arise. Easier said than done, of course. And the downside is that I suspect it will only serve to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.
A graphic example of the mixed picture about the effect of technology is through the rise of micro-businesses. Only requiring a good broadband connection, increasing numbers have started their own business from home or a shared office. Sounds great in theory, and many embrace the opportunity to develop good businesses.
But many others find to their cost that all they have done is create not a business but a lower paid job with longer hours and more insecurity. As this trend continues, I suspect there will be moves to give the self-employed at least some level of protection, coupled with less protection given to employed workers, ie some equalisation of the current situation.
What else will change? My instinct is that we will finally make serious inroads into the gender pay gap by paying more than lip service to flexible career arrangements, subsidised child care and paid paternity pay (not shared with the mother).
But I can’t see a further expansion in discrimination rights (other than, possibly, protection against `fatism’), and the role of collective organised labour will continue its historical decline.
Ultimately, though, for my Sophia and the rest of the next generation there is no set formula for success and happiness at work. Just a few simple principles: educate yourself, communicate well, have a good work ethic, and treat others at work and in life how you want to be treated. Now that’s not so scary is it?