1986 Predictions for the Future of Work

A little while ago I made the most brilliant charity shop find: a book from 1986 with the title ‘Let’s Discuss Unemployment’ by Michael Gibson (by the way Orkney Library, I can’t believe you withdrew the book!). Anyway, what I’m fascinated about with the book is the insight it offers into the way the workplace was perceived in the late 1980s.

"Let's Discuss Unemployment"  published in 1986
“Let’s Discuss Unemployment” published in 1986

The first thing I noticed (with a touch of horror) were these two statements:

“Women tend to receive far less sympathy and practical assistance than men when they become unemployed. ‘Married women are taking men’s jobs’ and ‘A woman’s place is in the home’ are commonly repeated sayings used to justify discrimination against women in jobs”

“Most members of ethnic minorities who have jobs at all are in unskilled, usually poorly paid positions with little job security”

I was 6 years old when this book was published, and the idea that such statements could be made, let alone that discrimination of this kind existed on the basis of gender or ethnic background, is quite awful to me. But what I was also struck by (once I got over my surprise) is how much the workplace (and how we think about it) has changed in a relatively short time – less than 30 years.

Now, this put me in mind of the UKCES report ‘The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030’ (which I have previously blogged about). When I read this report some of the scenarios imagined for the year 2030 seemed quite radical, and I caught myself thinking – really? Could this be the future in just 15 years? But now considering this book from 1987, it doesn’t seem like the scenarios are quite so radical after all. A particularly interesting part of the book from this perspective is the section entitled ‘The Future’ where the writer imagines what the future workplace will look like. Here are some of the main points:

  • The book cites John Stonier: “It is highly probably that by early in the next century, it will require no more than 10 per cent of the labour force to provide us with all material needs, that is, all the food we eat, all the clothes we wear, all textiles, appliances etc”. Therefore, those people in employment will be required to have ‘mental rather than manual skills’ and ‘creativity and innovation’ will be more important than ‘conscientiousness and hard work’.
  • Citing Sinfield the book raises the possibility that long working days will be a think of the past, and raises the question ‘what are people going to do with all their spare time?’
  • Identifying the changes in technology, the book weighs up different possibilities, citing the Manpower research group to state that although technology opens up possibilities these are not inevitable, and that the timescale involved would likely to be longer than anticipated. However, the possibility of technology for ‘free[ing] people to work in their own homes or as they move around, and enables them to be very much more productive’ is also noted (quote from Sinfield).

I read through these ideas with interest, and with envy of the idea of more free time (in the context of the continuing rise of working hours in the twenty first century). However, what struck me most was the impact of unanticipated forces, particularly the rise of the global economy – with, for example, many of our clothes, textiles, appliances and much of our food sourced from the global marketplace (where labour costs are significantly reduced). Similarly, with technology, the rise of the internet has changed the workplace radically – it is not just the case that ‘the microchip’ allows us to work from computers from home, but with the internet, how we communicate, who we communicate with, and how we conduct business have all been radically changed.

The 1986 imagined future home workplace. I particularly love the huge amount of paperwork stored on the shelves – the “paperless office” was clearly difficult to imagine at that time….!

Considering the UKCES report in this light is interesting, because although we can manage a ‘best guess’ at the future, the impact of the unknown (and the unimaginable) can be significant. The report itself recognises this, stating that ‘it is not possible to predict the future’ and cites as an example the (mistaken) widespread belief in the 80s and 90s that the defining feature of the UK labour market would be radically reduced working hours and increased leisure time. So, the question is, what radical shifts might occur between now and 2030….? It’s anyone’s guess…..


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