Last year the UK Commission for Employment and Skills published a report entitled ‘The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030’. I read this some time ago, but it has stayed with me because of the sometimes radical scenarios the report paints.
The report starts by identifying key trends shaping the future labour market. These include: demographic change – as the baby-boomer generation ages; the increasing role of international migration; income uncertainty and the real-term reduction in household incomes; changing work environments and business models as developments of technology and globalisation restructure the workplace; and the growing scarcity of natural resources.
The report then lays out the ‘business as usual scenario’ for 2030 based on these factors. This scenario sees increasing insecurity of employment and income and increasing levels of short term contracts and freelance working with zero-hours contracts becoming more common. Portfolio careers and the hybridization of skills become commonplace, with people reinventing themselves on a more regular basis and developing greater flexibility in the workplace. Entrepreneurism becomes more of a desirable lifestyle.
The report then lays out four alternative scenarios based on potential ‘disruptions’ to the business as usual scenario – imagining, for example, a world where global resource conflicts or climate disasters threaten supply, or where robotics and IT developments mean a radical automation of professional tasks, or where zero hours contracts become the norm. As a result of the discussions, the study indicates areas for consideration for employers, individuals, education and training providers and policy makers.
Future of Work in Rural Areas
All of this got me thinking about what this might mean for rural economies and rural careers. The report focuses very much on the UK context rather than focusing on regional or rural issues, but what sense can be made of the report for rural areas?
My main thought is that for rural areas, the ‘business as usual’ scenario would have to include the increasing centralisation of employment in urban areas (specifically London). In recent years, the trend for increasing centralisation of employment, but specifically higher level ‘graduate’ employment into London and the South East has been striking. With London, and to a lesser extent regional capitals such as Edinburgh, being the centre for financial industries and the Head Office locations of many large firms, other regions have seen decreasing levels of graduate employment (Charlie Ball’s blog contains more data on this topic). .
What rural economies do have in terms of graduate employment is particularly focused on public sector and service occupations, and professions such as teaching and healthcare. However, these traditional professions are ones that the UKCES report (and other recently published reports) identify as potentially quite at risk from technological innovation. It is possible that a combination of increasing ability to deliver services solely through web-based technologies and increasing ability to use web-technologies to outsource professional jobs to a global labour market will radically destabilise these professions – meaning that there will be less of a demand for these roles, and where there is demand this could be delivered from other parts of the globe (The Guardian posted an interesting video about this some time ago). For rural economies the impact could be significant, because without these roles there will be even more limited graduate and professional employment opportunities in rural areas.
Alongside a reduction in roles, increasing demands of the global market place may lead to increasing demands for migration, with young people expected to move nationally and internationally for work. As the report suggests, individuals should prepare for the future by: “Chang[ing their] mind-set regarding the nature of work, as it becomes less location-specific, more network oriented, project based and increasingly intensive.”
With the report suggesting generally a high likelihood of an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, rural economies could be left firmly in the ‘poor’ side of the division. Where all of this sounds potentially quite bleak for rural areas, there are some other alternatives. Just as the main UKCES report identifies different scenarios, it is possible to imagine some different scenarios for rural areas too.
First of all, although technology places professional jobs at risk, it also opens up opportunities in other sectors, and, importantly, opens up the potential for greater flexibility of the location of work. Just as the report raises the issue that technological innovation means that services in the UK can be increasingly delivered from other global locations, they may also be delivered from elsewhere in the UK. Of course, salary competition within global labour markets may lead to a decrease in wages for these roles, but potentially someone delivering a service from Orkney or Shetland will be no more disadvantaged in the global labour market than someone delivering a service from London, Paris or Bangkok.
Similarly although migration may become more and more essential, the report also notes the impact of changing workplace values, with a greater demand from employees for flexibility. Flexibility in this report mostly centres around work-life balance, but perhaps there is a wider impact here in terms of ‘lifestyle’ factors becoming more important. Lifestyle and quality of life have long been attractors to rural areas, so, if employees are becoming increasingly driven by lifestyle perhaps rural areas will become more attractive to migrants. With businesses increasingly developing flexible business models, increasing their reliance on freelancers, and becoming more used to tapping into geographically distant workers in other parts of the globe, then potentially they will also become more open to employing workers in more rural parts of the UK.
My final thought is that where increasing portfolio working and demands for flexible application of skills (as predicted by the report) may be significant disruptions for UK workers as a whole, potentially employees from rural areas will be more ready to adapt to these changes. This is because rural workers are already more likely to be working in two or more different jobs, and to be taking a ‘flexible’ approach to their careers (as I have previously written about before).
As the report points out “the future is unknowable” however considering different scenarios can help businesses, education providers, individuals and policy makers to prepare themselves for future developments. Although what the future holds for rural areas is also unknowable, attempting to apply some of the findings from the report to rural areas also provides scope for helping to prepare individuals, businesses, education providers and policy makers in these areas for the future.