Labour markets are dynamic beasts, constantly changing, evolving and adapting in the face of global changes in new technologies, new ways of working, new trading patterns, and changing social and political norms – and often in unexpected ways. As a result, industries rise and fall and so do occupations; no job or sector remains untouched. Alongside long-term structural changes we have constant background noise from millions of people every year changing jobs or employment status, moving to other regions and countries, and exiting and entering the labour market.

Yet beneath the surface, labour markets tend to change their structure slowly and incrementally, rather than quickly and radically. Examples of steady change include both the shift towards higher skill and better educated workforces and demographic ageing. Sometimes they change very little. For example, there has been no significant increase in the share of non-permanent employment over the past 20 years.

Just as an observer in 1990 would have struggled to say what the labour market of 2020 would look like, so too do we struggle to say with any confidence what the labour of 2040 will look like. It is easy to confuse short term trends with big long-term restructuring, not least because claims of big, immediate, and socially catastrophic change will always attract the most attention.

New technology is perhaps the hardest to predict and as a recent CIPD review showed, most studies to date are speculative and many look at specific areas of work rather than the economy as a whole. It was ever thus. What we can say is that so far new technology has changed many more jobs than it has destroyed, and it does not destroy work. Overall, the biggest advanced industrialised economies have between them created over 50 million jobs, a rise of nearly 20 per cent, over the past 20 years despite huge economic and technological disruptions.

It is not enough to assert that this time will be different because AI will affect more and different jobs than in the past. It must also do so in a way that stops technological advance leading to an increase in overall employment by increasing living standards, opening up new services and markets, and encouraging innovation in the way we work. Today we have a plethora of jobs and very little productivity growth – the exact opposite of what should be happening if we were on the verge of large scale technological unemployment.

Overall, we need to be realistic and grounded about change and avoid pressing the panic button, but not to be complacent. To say things are not as bad as people think is hardly a ringing endorsement of today’s labour market or workplace practice. Significant areas for improvement remain. And even if technological change comes more slowly and less destructively than some think, it will inevitably happen and will always involve disruption that will create losers as well as winners. A key test for the future will be whether we can create resilient and effective structures and practices in the workplace and beyond to minimise the adverse impacts and maximise the benefits.

If perhaps we focus too much on the labour market in the expectation of radical change, we do not give enough attention to the workplace. This may seem an odd conclusion given the huge volumes of material published, but in reality we know a great deal more about quantities of work than we do about its quality or how workplace practice is changing and how that in turn influences performance and the quality of work. For example, the authoritative Workplace Employment Survey (WERS) is now nearly a decade out of date, with little sign that government is interested in supporting an update. Moreover, in key debates about big economic issues such as productivity, the role of the workplace has been neglected even though it is only through the actions of managers and employees that improvement can be secured.

What comes out again and again is the importance attached to both the quality of management and how the workforce is managed both as a means of improving workplace efficiency and the experience of work. How people are managed, their relationship with their supervisors and line managers, and their ability to influence decisions at work all seem important in improving the quality of work.

The evidence we have suggests at best mixed progress over the past decade and little sign of significant change over the next decade. The UK Government’s positive response to the Taylor Review is a not to be missed opportunity to give much more attention and thought to improving the quality of work and workplace practice, moving beyond the important but limited debate on reforms to contract status. And that in turn, I think, also gives us an opportunity to advance the strategic role of HR in providing solutions to the challenges of work and workplaces in the current century.

Last month I had the privilege to co-author a book called 21st Century Workforces and Workplaces with Professor Cary Cooper, President of the CIPD, Steve Bevan from the Institute for Employment Studies, and Zofia Bajorek from The Work Foundation. This article draws on some of our thoughts and findings.

By Ian Brinkley

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