The following is an extract from the introduction to the full paper that includes sources. You can click here to download the full discussion paper as a PDF

Work is central to the life of most adults. On one understanding, people in Britain have never worked more: employment is at a high of 32.4 million; unemployment is at the lowest rate since 1975, totalling 1.4 million, or 4 per cent.1 The number of self-employed workers has grown sharply over the past decade, and currently numbers around 4.5 million.2 Yet the nature of the work in which most Britons are engaged has vastly changed over the last century, and technological advancement, globalisation, and changes of political attitude are often seen as threatening the future place of work in our society.

Robots, AI, big data, crypto currencies — all of this change, and more, has arrived, whether we like it or not. Some people want the state to restrict, or even ban, these kinds of technological progress; others want them to be heavily regulated or taxed. But the forces of change are global and powerful. In many cases, irreversible change has already happened: nostalgic laments are impossible. Critics also miss the immense positives of technological advancement. The advances of the past decades have not only changed the future of work, they have improved living standards across the world, to an almost inconceivable extent. Innovation drives up standards, and drives down prices for consumers. The UK has become a world leader in the creative and digital sectors, in genomics, and much more.

These advances do pose challenges, however. Big questions include those regarding the extent to which there should be an official attempt to mitigate any unintended negative consequences, and, more fundamentally, how central work should actually be, both to the individual and to society as a whole. In simple terms, it is clear that work can give individuals a place in society, providing dignity, respect, and a sense of community, as well as the sense of achievement that comes from the chance to use and improve one’s skills. These are benefits that not only improve the lives of individuals; dignity, respect, and community are, on most understandings, central to a good and flourishing society. Important subsequent questions, therefore, relate to the distribution of work opportunities, and access to the forms of education and skills training that allow people to compete for the jobs they are suited to.

New questions also arise regarding the age-old trade-off between security and flexibility, in a world in which modern forms of work, such as those within the ‘peer-to-peer’ or ‘gig’ economy, are growing. How can we become freer in our working, yet also ensure that unlucky people do not slip through the gaps? This can happen either owing to restricted access to necessary skills or opportunities, or owing to often-unfounded fears about the reduced formal protections that come alongside the wider benefits of a more flexible and individually-tailored approach to work.

Flexibility is a key theme of this paper. Britain is famous for its flexible labour market, a factor that has certainly contributed to our recent record employment performance. In a more focused sense, increasing numbers of people work flexibly, and even more want to. New ways of working are already driving shifts in societal behaviour, and provoking new demands and expectations. Increasing numbers of businesses have recognised that offering flexibility to their workers can improve performance, as well as staff retention.

For instance, a recent report for IPSE by Andrew Burke looks into the value that freelancers add to the clients they work with, and to the economy as a whole. Burke finds that freelancers enable firms to be more innovative, to reduce entrepreneurial risk, and, ultimately, to create jobs. And the pace of change regarding flexible working is accelerating. According to a recent YouGov survey, only 6 per cent of people now work a ‘normal 9-5 week’, and Timewise reported earlier this year that 87 per cent of employees want to work flexibly. It is also the case that certain structural issues in the workplace to do with productivity and fairness — such as the effect of career breaks associated with motherhood on the lifetime earnings and career progression potential of women — could also be addressed with increased flexibility.

Big-scale cultural transformations related to the number of people working from home, or the length of the working week, for instance, should be left to demand, as driven by the aggregation of individuals’ informed choices. Deleterious unintended consequences arise when public policy attempts to drive social and cultural norms. Nonetheless, there could be a place for the public sector to lead by example. It is also clear that as the nature of work — and the needs and preferences of individuals in an increasingly globalised world — continues to change, demand for better educational opportunities will only grow. In this dynamic age, individuals must keep pace, and continually learn the new skills necessary to contribute and achieve fulfilment across a longer working life span. Nor should we forget the intrinsic value of learning for learning’s sake.

The frameworks of our education system have remained largely unchanged since the industrial revolution. It is time for a fundamental debate on the prevailing notion that, for most people, education finishes in their late teens or early adulthood. Moreover, for decades, post-school educational policy has been tightly focused on university study. It is well known that attendance at these institutions increased at an astonishing rate over the twentieth century. Although the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate for 2016-17 was 49.8 per cent, only 3.8 per cent was made up of those attending Further Education Colleges, and just 5.6 per cent of students were not taking their first degree.6 Access to student loans provision is very restricted for those in Further Education (FE), and whilst access has improved for postgraduates, restrictions remain, not least those regarding equivalent or lower qualifications.

There has been a serious fall in the number of part-time and mature students. The Sutton Trust has reported that ‘the number of part-time undergraduate entrants living in England attending UK universities and English further education colleges has fallen annually’, and that between 2010 and 2015 there was a decrease of 51 per cent. The MillionPlus Group has reported that, between 2011-12 and 2016-17, the total number of mature students in the UK declined by 20 per cent, and that there has been a 41 per cent decrease in mature students over the age of 30.8. The decrease in mature student numbers owes much to the decrease in part-time study, as this form of study traditionally caters to a much broader age range than full-time HE.

However, some of this must also be owing to the way in which increased opportunities for full-time degree study has reduced the pool of mature workers without a degree. Looking toward the future, a return to full-time study may seem, for many, simply not to be worth it. They might believe themselves to be better off studying part-time, thereby reducing the opportunity cost of taking three years out of the labour market — this could be facilitated through changes to the student funding system.

Our existing rigid and time-limited education system fails to address the need for new and expanding businesses to offer constant skills training to their workforce, in order to innovate and compete in the global marketplace. We must accept that the student of the future will not be an 18-21-year-old on a full-time three-year course, and recognise the benefits and challenges that this change will bring. This will be key, not least, for the country to meet the skills challenges ahead. Of equal importance, our current approach underplays the vast intrinsic value of good education to everyone, of any age. We urgently need to reassess the critical yet complex roles that both work and education play in our society.