Skip to main content

[10 minute read]

This article is based on the discussion at our latest Critical Purpose event ‘Purpose or Purgatory? How business can shape the future of work?’ held at RSA Rawthmells in February 2019

What is the ‘future of work’? It’s a question asked repeatedly over the past year by a burgeoning field of reports, institutions, and events.

Unfortunately, these activities have not always been as useful as you might hope. Too often, the field has felt trapped in a narrative of inevitable threat, stuck on the topic of just how many jobs the robots will take, with only vague allusions to mitigating action we might attempt.

However, alongside the general #FOW debates, a longer running parallel discussion has been taking an altogether different angle on the role and future of employment in our collective lives.

After two decades of political, economic and environmental tumult, the evidence suggests a fundamental shift is underway in the attitudes of the generations beginning to form majorities in the workforce.

Seeing a world beset by multiplying challenges and threats, younger employees now expect the organisations they work for – in whatever field – to be taking active steps to build a more positive future for us all.

A question that has rarely been asked is how these two trends might come together.

How changing expectations around finding ‘purpose’ in our work might influence and interact with the impact of technology – and what this means for how businesses – and individuals – can take a more active role in shaping our coming world of employment.

Do we want to change?

Part of the reason for the aforementioned glut of headlines around robot-led job loss is that, while everyone seems to be certain that major change is coming, and soon, the honest truth is there’s not much certainty when it comes to the details of exactly how, and where, the change will manifest itself.

Thus even the most sketchily based reports are grasped for as pointing the direction ahead, and those with the most lurid and headline-friendly conclusions make their way into the media in the first place.

But what does the evidence really say? Unfortunately the most rigorous reports don’t lend themselves to easy summary –  but a few organisations are doing the hard work of teasing out what can and can’t be said about where we are going.

As part of its Future of Skills Report, Nesta used the apposite technique of machine learning to assess the future impact of similar technologies on what skills and careers will become more and less prevalent – and then displayed them in an interactive visual graph.

Kate Sutton, Head of Corporate Innovation at Nesta, presented some of the headline results of this and other research they had carried out.

While we have some idea of what occupations are likely to grow (health, media, engineering and teaching & education professionals), and shrink (construction and building, customer service, mobile machine operatives), there is still a lot of uncertainty, with an estimated 50%  of the outcome unknown.

Beyond specific occupations, the skills identified as becoming increasingly important by 2030 are quite familiar – interpersonal skills like collaboration, creative thinking and problem solving skills, some broad-based knowledge such as history and philosophy as well as more specialist subjects like science and engineering. And, in some ways the most important of all – learning skills.

It was this last point where a real fundamental problem starts to become clear. While much of the change that is coming may not yet be clear in detail, we do know for certain that there will be an increasing need for workers in most industries to retrain in some form. And yet, as a recent report from the OECD has revealed, neither the demand nor supply for this widespread re-education is present in the workforce.

Almost 50% of adults neither train nor want to train. Only half of those that do train find it very useful for their job. Of current training, a full 21% is on compulsory subjects like Health & Safety. And in the industries most at risk of automation, these numbers are even worse.

While our collective failure to step up to the challenge of re-skilling may not be as immediately exciting a story as impending robot revolution, it is hard to overstate the significance of this. To give just one example, flatlining productivity has been regularly identified as a central challenge for the UK economy going forward, and a core reason for our poor wage growth. The link to a failure of sufficient investment in developing our skills is not hard to make.  

Getting Personal

As the OECD statistics suggest, this is not only a business or policy challenge – there is clearly a cultural issue in how we view continuing education and training. And for many also a personal reluctance to see education and training as something worthwhile and attractive.

So where does this resistance come from, and how might it be overcome?

The School of Life has forged a reputation as a creative and innovative force in reimagining lifelong education, combining nimble use of emerging technology with courses and content rooted in the insights of historic thinkers and philosophers.

While much of its  initial work focused on helping people through the most personal and emotional challenges, such as divorce or bereavement, they are increasingly being asked by businesses to help their employees gain the emotional skills needed to thrive in a modern workplace.

It may not be a huge surprise to learn that among the companies in need of help with this have been tech giants like Facebook and Google. As Sarah Stein Lubrano, Head of Content at the School of Life told us, the more we work more with technology, or are pushed into jobs technology can’t do, the more emotional, social and collaborative skills become important – those like collaboration, flexibility, influence, maturity, productivity, and self-knowledge. Emotional intelligence skills also can help us avoid getting lost within our new technology, for instance the ever increasing risks of distraction or poor communication.

But acquiring these skills is more than just a matter of learning a new technical method; often it means making fundamental changes in your outlook. Changing what you do or how you operate on such a basic level can effectively mean changing parts of your identity. Most of us still spend most of our time at work, so the reality is that to a great extent it defines who we are, perhaps more than ever – so major changes can be a deeply personal and emotional challenge, with defensiveness and resistance inevitable. None of us after all, find it easy to admit we need to change.

The School of Life has a few techniques it uses to overcome this inevitable defensiveness – making skills training about groups rather than singling out individuals, including senior management directly whenever possible. But how else might we able to get past it? Well one answer might come from looking further up.

Top down as well as bottom up

Along with the obsession with robots, another assumption in the ‘future of work’ debate has been  that the main concern is ‘blue collar’, working class jobs – that the people who will lose out and therefore be most in need of reskilling are those at the bottom of the pyramid.

But what evidence there is suggests the impact will be felt more widely. Any, in any case, if we are to try and take a more active role in shaping the future of work, we will need the people at the top of business to be shifting their knowledge and understanding as much, if not more so.  Particularly if we want business moving towards a more socially responsible paradigm to be part of the outcome.

Adam Grodecki is the Founder and Executive Director of the Forward Institute, a nonprofit that works with leadership in major businesses and other organisations to build a movement for responsible leadership.

Adam Grodecki, Forward Insitute

Adam Grodecki, Forward Institute

The recent erosion of  trust in all sorts of institutions is well documented. Understandably, large swathes of the public look at the current state of our politics and have little faith in its ability to solve the big challenges we face. In this context, there is greater expectation than ever on business to step forward, and in particular on CEOs, to lead social progress.

However, as demonstrated by numerous recent scandals, senior business leadership can be as blind to problems as the rest of us – even more so when organisational pressures and culture lead to an inward looking, short termist perspective.

The need to shift the perspective of CEOs – to encourage more responsible leadership – is therefore an equally great priority if we are to try and build a more positive future of business, and work, for all of us.

For the Forward Institute, a range of approaches is applied in its 18 month programme to help senior figures learn new approaches and perspectives. But amongst the most powerful are its  placements – taking individuals out of their familiar culture and environment, and placing them directly in very different organisational and practical challenges.

Interestingly, this sort of method was cited by two other participants as a powerful approach that can have benefits for both individuals and organisations. The charity Movement to Work has placed over 80,000 people from difficult backgrounds into work placements, with over 50% of those completing them going into jobs or back into education; the positive impact of these fresh perspectives can be seen across the organisations it works with in new ideas and energy. Another contributor talked about a project where interns were placed directly with CEOs, and the benefits both had gained from the experience. So one way of overcoming personal (and cultural) resistance to change is through placements. But obviously this can’t be the whole solution.

Conclusion – our collective challenge

As well as being fixated on a pessimistic narrative of automation taking jobs, and assuming the impact will be felt only amongst the lower paid, a final problem with many discussions about the future of work has been their sheer breadth – rarely settling on specific subjects where practical progress can be made.

But now there does seem to be emerging a crucial, specific challenge that will play a key role in how that future turns out – namely how we can make the process of reskilling and retraining far more widespread, higher quality, and particularly make more people want to do it.

This will of course, require investment from government, and policy change, beyond the traditional bounds of ‘education’. It will require business en masse to be persuaded to invest more in training their staff. Certainly there needs to be an increase in the quality and availability of training, updated to prepare for the coming challenges. And as individuals we all need to face up to the need to change. Particularly as employment trends shift towards greater self-employment, with fewer having a single employer responsible for our skills.  In this context, self development and change naturally becomes more personal.

But for all this to be achieved will be also require a collective change – a cultural shift in attitudes, to reframe training and reskilling as a more useful, attractive and exciting endeavour than it has been up to this point.  Many of the skills that we most need to prepare for the coming future of work need this to an even greater degree – while most people will readily admit the importance of emotional intelligence or soft skills, admitting that you need training in these areas is a very different matter.

What is needed is to create a mutual effort , where people  can see that something positive is happening, that they want to be a part of. Create a narrative that makes it feel part of an attractive future we all need to build. Draw upon the increasing desire for purpose and meaning, and make gaining future ready skills a natural part of that effort.

Necessarily this will require a collaborative effort drawing on all the entities listed above; the expertise on Future of Work held by many specialist institutions, as well as individuals with relevant experience and knowledge . A broad-based movement to instigate a revolution in the way we view  our employment and skills.

It’s an exciting prospect – and one that feels more necessary and urgent the more it comes into focus. All it will take is all of us.

If you’re interested in being kept updated on our future work in this area, please get in touch at

Our event was hosted at Rawthmells, the RSA’s new enlightenment coffeehouse, a space designed to foster the creative thinking and collaborative action needed to address the challenges of the 21st century. You can find out more Fellowship of the RSA here: 

Leave a Reply