No-one knows where the jobs market is going
Northern Ireland’s only independent think tank recently carried out a survey of local young people, asking them their thoughts about modern Northern Ireland and how it could become a better place to live and thrive.
Pivotal’s findings covered all sorts of areas, from the continuing influence of paramilitaries to the strengths and weakness of Shared Education, from housing segregation to the failure of local politicians to concentrate on the issues that matter most to young people.
Those who took part were asked to rank a number of possible changes they would like to see that could have a positive impact on their lives.
The most popular response – above more mixed housing areas, above more political agency, above the removal of paramilitary influence – was better careers advice.
This is an incredibly savvy answer. As Ann Watt, the Director of Pivotal, said: “The fact that their number one desire is to have better careers advice shows that the ability to build a better future for themselves is a massive priority for local young people. They raised concerns about whether their education had given them the skills they need for the job they want.”
However, what careers advice would you give an 18-year-old today?
What about a six-year-old? What would you tell them? Obviously the jobs market is a less pressing matter for primary school children than young adults – but how can anyone have confidence about what the world will look like in 20 years?
The present is changing so fast that the future becomes impossible to foresee.
Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press in 1440. While it and its descendants eventually did for hand copying as a widespread concern, monastic scriptoria kept on producing parchment for a very long time afterwards.
Nowadays it is possible to imagine entire types of jobs being created, rising, falling and disappearing in decades, perhaps even years.
The future is a guess and the quality and nature of employment forecasting is a testament to this.
What will the world of work look like in a couple of decades? Search online and you will find plenty of takes on this. Some of them are quite mad – but maybe they need to be.
A few years ago, major international consultancy PwC published Workforce of the future - The competing forces shaping 2030, an analysis of how employment might change this decade.
PwC identified five “megatrends” that are “the tremendous forces reshaping society and with it, the world of work”. These include:
- Technological breakthroughs, such as robotics, automation and AI.
- Demographic shifts, primarily the world’s ageing population and how this will affect business models, pensions and more.
- Rapid urbanisation, with PwC noting that, by 2030, an estimated 4.9bn people will be urban rather than rural dwellers.
- Shifts in global economic power – with PwC predicting: “The rapidly developing nations, particularly those with a large working‑age population, that embrace a business ethos, attract investment and improve their education system will gain the most… The erosion of the middle class, wealth disparity and job losses due to large‑scale automation will increase the risk of social unrest in developed countries.”
- Resource scarcity and climate change, which of course means depleting fossil fuels, extreme weather, rising sea levels, water shortages, as well as major restructuring of energy industries.
The report then tries to place these megatrends, which are interconnected but have complex relationships with one another, on a timeline and try to make plausible predictions of what they will do to our world and all the societies within it.
What were the findings? Probably not what you might expect from a global company with a sober reputation.
PwC identified four possible futures – which it named Red World, Blue World, Green World and Yellow World – that could describe our near-term reality.
Red World – innovation rules: a vibrant market of specialists and niche profit-makers race to serve the needs of individuals and powerful affinity groups.
“New products and business models develop at lightning speed, far more quickly than regulators can control. Technology encourages the creation of powerful, like‑minded, cross‑border social ‘bubbles’. Businesses innovate to create personalisation and find new ways to serve these niches…
“Specialism is highly prized in the Red World and a career, rather than being defined by an employer or institution, is built from individual blocks of skills, experience and networks.
“Near‑zero employee organisations are the norm. Organisations of a few pivotal people use technology, the supply chain and intellectual property, rather than human effort and physical assets, to generate value…
“Workers know that the most sought‑after skills will mean the biggest reward package. Many move frequently and stay only as long as the project or business lasts. Contract negotiations are key and ownership of intellectual property and the freedom to work are as important as financial incentives.”
Blue World – corporations are kings: global companies and groups take centre stage, consumer choice dominates, and a corporate career separates the haves from the have nots.
“In the Blue World, companies see their size and influence as the best way to protect their prized profit margins against intense competition from their peers and aggressive new market entrants. Corporations grow to such a scale, and exert such influence, that some become more powerful than nation states…
“For workers in the Blue World, the pressure to perform is relentless. Those with a permanent role enjoy excellent rewards, as do in‑demand contract workers with specialist skills – but both know that their future employability depends on keeping their leading‑edge skills relevant… companies provide many of the services, from children’s education, eldercare and healthcare, previously provided by the state.
“The price workers must pay is their data. Companies monitor and measure obsessively, from the location of their workforce to their performance, health and wellbeing – both in and outside the workplace. Organisations use the data to predict performance and importantly, to anticipate people risk.”
Green World – powerful social conscience is paramount: workers and consumers show loyalty towards organisations that do right by their employees and the wider world.
“In the Green World, corporate responsibility isn’t just a nice‑to‑have – it’s a business imperative. Companies are open, collaborative organisations that see themselves as playing an essential role in developing their employees and supporting local communities…
“Employees enjoy family-friendly, flexible hours and are encouraged to take part in socially‑useful projects. They trust their employer to treat them fairly in terms of pay, development and conditions and in return are expected to reflect the culture of the company in their approach and behaviour.
“The high ethical standards to which companies are held has cascaded down to employees; conduct and ethics are taken very seriously at work and performance is assessed against a wide range of measures, including how efficiently workers manage their travel and resources.”
Yellow World – fairness and social good is dominant: both businesses and artisans with a heart thrive in a creative market that emphasises fairness.
“In the Yellow World, workers and companies seek out greater meaning and relevance in what they do.
“A strong desire for ‘fairness’ in the distribution of wealth, resources and privilege drives public policy, leading to increased government intervention and consumers and workers voting with their feet…
“Workers feel the strongest loyalty not to their employer, but to people with the same skills or cause.
“The Yellow World is the perfect breeding ground for the emergence of new worker Guilds, similar to the craft associations and trade fraternities of the Middle Ages. These Guilds develop in order to protect, support and connect independent workers and often provide training and other benefits that have traditionally been supplied by employers.”
That’s probably not what you were expecting – but at least the next time a six-year-old asks you about job they might be able to do when they’re older, you’ll be able to answer their question.
It’s easy to dunk on PwC for its report. It’s galaxy-brain egalitarian nonsense/doomsaying. It’s an inelegant science fiction novel, with no story only lore. It’s pseudo-visionary claptrap.
Actually, it’s none of these. Or, at least, it’s not only those things. It is a genuine effort to foresee the effects of the major forces operating in the world right now. Will any of its narratives prove correct? I don’t know, and neither do you, and that’s the point.
Details-focused readers might hone in on the fact that Workforce of the future was actually published in 2017. Since then we have seen major socioeconomic shocks including the pandemic, the manifestation of Brexit (rather than simply the referendum result), the war in Ukraine, and the current cost-of-living crisis.
It’s fair to ask if this makes the report out of date. In fact, it only makes its methodology look more prescient. When it come to the head-spinning pace of change of the modern world, these are yet more facts that support the thesis.
Yes, there is a risible layer to the PwC analysis. Unfortunately, that just reflects the Black Mirror-esque reality we are living through and will continue to live through for an unknown amount of time.
We are stuck in a dark comedy, trying to live serious lives. Good luck.
But there’s more…
Of course, that’s not the end of it.
Rather than surrender to astonishment, doubt or fatalism, our conversations about the world of work need to focus as much on the unpredictability of trends and the instability of various jobs, as much as on what job individual people should aim for.
It is no longer just about pointing people in a direction and telling them how to stick to the path – it’s also about how the paths themselves shimmer and shift. Stability is no longer guaranteed.
How should we adapt to this? That is a question for several different audiences. Individuals. Families (especially parents and guardians). Schools, colleges and universities. The government. Businesses. The community and voluntary sector.
If we accept that the future is hard to see, accept that major changes are afoot and some have the potential to cause great harm while others could result in amazing positive transformation, and accept that this is an unavoidably chaotic situation, then as a society we can have constructive dialogue on those terms.
Careers advice, therefore, might be less about mapping out a path to a specific job and more about building a society that can handle rapid change then teaching people how to live in flux.
The third sector’s role will be multifaceted. It is an employer. It provides support to people in need (and an increase in the lack of job security, or a simple reduction in employment opportunities due to automation and AI will increase both of those). Its most important role could be as an advocate.
Maybe the future will be fine. But, maybe not.
An absence of work, or secure work, is unlikely to be a challenge with an individualistic solution. Any fixes will be collaborative, collective and social.
The world is changing fast, but people still have the power to make decisions, especially when they act together.
The future may be impossible to predict but we can all have a say in the reality to come.
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