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Jesus College Perspectives on the Future of Life and Work

On 30 September 2021, the Jesus College Perspectives brought together a range of experts to reflect on the future of life and work, particularly reflecting on the post-covid experience. It built on a previous Conference on the Future of Work from 2016, a time when the general outlook on the world was very different - and rather more positive. Some of the participants attended the previous conference, but most were new to this event.

The Conference began with the introduction of a report, Buiding Back Better, produced by the Intellectual Forum at Jesus College along with PeoplePlus. We then moved with the 24 roundtable attendees to discuss life and work in the post-pandemic period.

Work and life shifts in the post-COVID world

The initial session considered the immediate changes to work and life in later stages and aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was discussion as to the extent that COVID-19 had been the cause of the sweeping changes often described in the media, or whether it had simply accelerated existing trends. Some felt that while a few changes would be lasting, others would rapidly return to the status quo ante.

Some changes were clear, such as the fact that the proportion of working adults who did any work from home in 2020 increased to 37% up from 27% in 2019. Workers living in London were the most likely to work from home. It was also noted that of those working adults currently homeworking, 85% wanted to use a "hybrid" approach of both home and office working in future. Home-working seems here to stay, for some at least.

It was also emphasised that in contemporary society, paid work plays a fundamental role in individual identity, and impacts positively on mental health and wellbeing. The participants emphasised that such work has positive impacts not just because of the resulting income, but also because it structures our time and gives us social contact, while forging a collective purpose and thereby giving people status within social groups. They suggested that more flexible working, allowing more people to work from home, alongside policy drives to boost employment, are likely more gains in the future in terms of wellbeing for people, as more people are able and can move into work, and select work styles that suit them best.

That said, the participants acknowledged that while the quality of work is increasing, we have moved to over-consume work - we do more of it than we need to. The Conference discussed how we have shifted from the mass economy of the 20th century to an on-demand economy in the 21st century, which has made the working day longer, albeit more flexible in terms of where we work and how we work for many who do not have to attend a physical place to conduct their work. The Conference not only discussed the changes in our consumption habits as a result, but also suggested we are increasingly commodifying work itself. 

Part of the discussion focused on the effects of ‘white collar’ workers not having to go into the office as much anymore, and what that means for the future of cities. It was also noted that in one BBC survey, 43 of 50 of the UK’s biggest employers said they would embrace a mix of home and office working, with staff encouraged to work from home two to three days a week. Two thirds of London First members have reported that they are keeping their existing floorspace but making changes to how it is set up to accommodate more collaborative space and quiet zones as well as incorporating fun elements to draw people in like green spaces and café style areas. Our participants therefore concluded that the office is not dead but it will be different post-pandemic. They also concluded that the binary of office versus home won’t continue, with much more blending of the two.

Not all workers will be able to work from home, and there has been heavy recruitment in the ‘blue collar’ labour force. One participant, for example, cited how a great number of people had gained jobs in supermarkets and logistics over the pandemic, particularly in digital supermarkets like Hello Fresh, Ocado and Gusto. The pandemic affected this ‘blue collar’ workforce very differently, and often more harshly. Many of these workers had no choice but to be present for work and their work could not be outsourced. Hybrid working, it was emphasised, is only an option for certain workers, not all.

Another important issue is the complexity of getting the hybrid balance right for all groups of employees as well as the business. This is something many firms are grappling with, in part because the longer-term future of how we will work remains unclear. It was concluded that it is still a complex picture and one that makes clear that the office will need to develop - evolving away from a Victorian ideal to a late 21st century model.

The future of cities is also likely to change even more markedly than pre-pandemic (a subject we discussed in our Conference on the Future of Homes, Housing and Urbanisation). In-person workers are crucial for a city’s wider ecosystem. Businesses are often reliant on footfall, particularly SMEs, arts, culture, and hospitality. The participants discussed the consequences ofd absence of people from a city’s central activities zone, as has been seen very strikingly in parts of London during the pandemic. While some displacement of spending from city centres to the suburbs may well be a good thing, it is the concentration at the heart of the city - via the melee of people, different types of businesses that feed off each other’s proximity, restaurants, arts, culture -  that makes a major city like London such an attractive place to invest as well as to live, work and play.

The participants discussed, however, that there were some great failures to capitalise on some of the opportunities that came out of the pandemic to rethink cities and space more generally as we move forward with life in a post-pandemic world. Some noted that while there had been a move to outdoor dining in order to meet social distancing and indoor/outdoor regulations, that al fresco dining is being ended in some English cities. It was highlighted that being able to use streets and spaces was an insight in taking back the public realm, and also to think innovatively about how we can have very diverse spacial use in the future. The session concluded that much was still in flux, but that we stand at a moment where creativity, innovation and rethinking can occur.

Skills for a post-COVID future

The Conference then moved in the next session to consider the skills needed for the future. Although attendees disagreed on the scale of mass workplace change happening in the face of COVID-19, there was clear agreement that a focus on skills development for the future is critical. Participants were encouraged to explore how skills can be evolved to support the next generation as it enters the workforce and what we can do to aid skills development for the future to not just ‘future-proof’ employment but also democratise learning and skills. How can we focus on education to reduce disparity, boost participation, and create resilient careers? What is the outlook for skills development, and the role of governments and businesses in supporting job transitions and facilitating measures to respond to the changing mix? 

The session began with an overview of data that suggested that the existing skills development system is broken. It was pointed out that £2 billion in the digital skills arena was lost last year because of shortages. The now ongoing social care staff shortages make it complex and often problematic to care for older or ill relatives, and that this can have reverberations across society including on workforce participation. It was suggested that while Brexit has exacerbated shortages in terms of staffing, most of these problems are long term and chronic. 

One participant highlighted that there were over 1.1 million live job vacancies in the UK between July and September 2021, and yet nearly double that were registered as unemployed in August 2021. As furlough came to an end for 1.3-1.6 million people on the day of the Perspectives Conference, there was some discussion of what this may mean. Would people be employed in their original jobs and things return to ‘normal’? Would they instead simply be laid off? 

The participants explored the UK policy environment focus on moving from employment to employability, which has led to a hollowing out of our labour market. It was argued that by removing the link between employer and employee, a situation has emerged that is wasteful and dispiriting for the learner, while being near-useless for industry, and costly for the taxpayer. An example was given based on a report from the Local Government Association. According to the LGA, in 2011 there were 94,000 people who completed hair and beauty courses, despite there being just 18,000 new jobs in the sector. Meanwhile, attendees discussed Gavin Williamson’s observation that the UK needed to stop the madness of training 50% of people in universities for jobs that don’t exist.

Some participants attributed this to the notion that the English education system is run without a long-term vision or plan largely due to election cycles. One participant suggested that there were issues with the focus on knowledge-based work, at the expense of skills, which this participant attributed to a failure to connect education and business together.

Another participant echoed this sentiment, suggesting that one chronic under-supporter of the skills agenda is employers. All businesses need to have serious workforce plans, rather than hoping that others will supply the skilled employees they need. The Conference heard about how the apprenticeship levy is run from the centre, which doesn’t create a functional structure for employers in local communities to work with schools and colleges in a sensible way. While well intentioned, it simply does not function,

One participant picked on the rhetoric sometimes used that divides skills and education - they are not in opposition and it is not an either/or situation. They emphasized that lifelong learning and upskilling are experiences for everyone, and that as careers become shorter term, rather than lifelong, people will need to see training as things that do not just happen in youth.

It was this point that moved the conversation to ask what are the skills we need if we are moving between jobs across our life course? One participant argued that it is in fact the ability to work in teams, be self aware, be organised, be creative, and take risks, which are often not the things a test-centred approach to education drives, and therefore we need a fundamental rethink in the UK and similar systems.

Indeed, our participants were keen to highlight the change of demographics and that we might find ourselves in a world with a permanent labour shortage as populations shift and older people outnumber younger people. Digital transformation offered one potential solution, but without skills and without skills and without diversity in training, many opportunities could be lost.

Digital transformation and opportunities for inclusion

After lunch, the Conference moved to consider digital transformation and what opportunities it creates for greater inclusion. We were reminded that, while some workers continue to have to be physically present for their roles, many now work digitally or remotely. It was also emphasized that many now find their jobs through platforms, and that while this has opened up space for more workers to find work, and also increased the ability for those who are needed to work from home to work online and remotely to find client or delivery for employer, that there are issue with digital intrusion, surveillance and precarity.

One participant opened the discussion detailing how there has been extensive contention over whether platform-work builds further flexibility or is problematically precarious. It was highlighted that there are few of the traditional rights or entitlements associated with this sort of employment, and that while a significant number earn well and feel that they can replace gigs with relative ease and under terms that suit them, many platform workers struggle with: (1) reduced job and income security; (2) reduced access to training, skills, and progression; (3) reduced access to employment rights, and (4) reduced ability to plan life outside of work and for the future.

While it was acknowledged that much of the research focuses on income insecurity as inherent to the independent contractor status, the participant outlined that another source of income insecurity derives from the unilateral power of platforms to increase the service fees charged to workers or remove whole categories of work from the platform. The example was give of OnlyFans recent announcement, and subsequent backing down after a backlash, of banning sex workers from its platform due to pushes from its payment providers to remove this kind of work. It was highlighted that simple changes to terms and conditions could remove a person's livelihood overnight.

Also, the participant noted how platforms that use customer-generated ratings to score workers can lead to significant impacts on income and mental health, as these are often opaque and algorithms can rapidly amplify the consequences of those scores. While labels such as “rising star” and “top rated” can lead to greater user engagement, these can amplify inequalities and insecurity as they render some workers hypervisible while others are made invisible to clients or users. The result can be that one poor rating or even a change to the algorithm that moves a person out of a top rated category can significantly impact their income.

The conference discussed the issue that many users do not understand how the algorithms work on many platforms, and this can lead to issues for platform-based workers. An example given was that people often think that all perfect scores on a profile appears to others as fake or dishonest so they downgrade a score slightly in order to help, but this in fact leads the algorithm to score the person down and take work away from them. With weighting not something many are educated on, and sometimes overtly not detailed by the platform itself, the system can appear opaque, even arbitrary. This leads to stress and ill health, which alongside COVID-19 crisis made clear that many gig workers continue to have little choice but to accept risky, even fatal, working conditions in order to continue to earn a living.

One participant raised that this is a question about the role of regulation, and it was discussed that there are many issues being considered by regulators like the Competition and Markets Authority here in the UK that are changing how platforms are regulated. Another participant expressed some skepticism about regulator’s abilities to impact on many of these issues noting that the economics of these platforms is that all the asset value is the platform. It was also highlighted that the technology-regulation gap is widening. What are the new types of government that are more agile? How can voters become more accepting of mistakes?

Another participant, however, was keen to emphasise that precarity and platform-work weren’t necessarily problematised by workers; Uber drivers often prefer what they are doing now to what they were doing before with mini-cabs. It was suggested that the problems ultimately arise because too many components of these new markets are owned by the same organisation. The challenge is to unbundle these services and reduce excessive market power. One example given was Google – and it was suggested that putting transfer pricing in between their advertising business and their search business, would make it possible for other companies to compete. However, while the need for change was accepted, the mechanism was unclear: government is terrified of getting things wrong, and people don’t forgive governments for getting things wrong!

Participants also suggested that it was critical to rethink how technology can help rather than just be used to surveille workers. One example given was a delivery driver who had to sit in their vehicle to deliver one package at a set  time because they were being tracked. It was suggested that technology needs to be seen as something to improve productivity and people’s lives, building us towards the promised shorter weeks that innovation should bring, rather than perversely making it more difficult and also impacting poorly on the environment.

Building resiliency now and in the future

Having explored the short and longer-term trends, the participants then moved to ask what is needed to support equitable growth and adaptability in the face of change. While the first session had agreed that COVID-19 brought extensive disruption and presented an opportunity to shift work-life balance to drive wellbeing and the greater good, this session moved to explore how this could be achieved without exacerbating existing inequalities and shortcomings. Participants explored how we can capitalise on change opportunities to increase resiliency and mitigate disruption, while improving overall the human experience. Participants began with the prompt: what will flourishing look like in the 21st Century?

One participant looked at the now and suggested that to move forward we need a fundamental shift in thinking about economic inequality. They emphasised that only 40% of Americans have savings of $400, and so are very precarious economically. This makes them much weaker market players, subjected to coercive market forces, and also means that they are much more prone to fear, which is leading to a kind of politics that is damaging many. Any ability to focus on national hope and optimism is weakened by personal uncertainty.

Other participants highlighted that COVID was the beginning of a much longer age of emergencies and that we need to think about the foundation of human resilience. One oft-invisible question is around care, which is unpriced and unvalued in the system, but which COVID highlighted was essential to survival as well as flourishing. Participants suggested that growth - particularly in terms of profit and also GDP - isn’t always what we should focus on and one participant highlighted that in 1833, the UK spent 40% of its budget to buy freedom for slaves, which amounts to 5% of its GDP at the time to abolish slavery. Indeed, in terms of the impending climate crisis, participants suggested we needed to look more to what factors build resilience; we should focus more on what we want from society than just consumption.

Participants discussed that while many frame our challenges as connected to ourselves, skills and our individuality, COVID highlighted that we are not so self-reliant and independent as we think. The result was that participants agreed that the pandemic had broken the spell of what we used to think of as normal, and that collaboration and connection could potentially flourish in its wake. Indeed, one participant highlighted that entrepreneurship through collaboration is more valuable (economically) than entrepreneurship through competition. It was suggested that while we could achieve changes on a large scale, and focus on these changes in conferences like this, at a personal level it’s good to take what we’ve learned individually over the past 18 months and acknowledge our connectedness. Participants ultimately suggested that while work, the future of cities and innovation needed to be considered, and the climate crisis addressed promptly, we should focus on what we can do together, rather than focus on competition and consumption. New thinking, creativity and care were all called for.

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