A crisis of job quantity or job quality? New technology, the pandemic and the future of work

Blog posts

10 Mar 2022

Abbie Winton

Abbie Winton, Research Fellow  

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Before the pandemic, many ‘future of work’ commentators had forged whole careers based on the notion that work, as we know it, would reach near-obliteration around the year 2030. This narrative was based on the belief that processes of technological change, most notably automation and digitalisation, would replace a large proportion of human workplace tasks leading to mass unemployment. Many feared that the quantity of work available for those working in ‘high risk’ industries such as retail, manufacturing and logistics would suffer considerably. However, since the pandemic, there has been a U-turn regarding the jobs narrative. As it stands, over one million roles are currently vacant, challenging long-standing predictions of technology-led unemployment. Therefore, the evidence suggests that perhaps the quantity of work may be less of a concern looking forward, at least in the immediate future.

Nevertheless, the pandemic was not enough to derail ‘end of work’ predictions. These claims have been re-packaged amidst the new epidemiological context, changing societal norms and workplace demands. Some observers suggest that the pandemic has, in fact, accelerated automating processes and poses a threat to the quantity of work in certain sectors (e.g. in retail). In contrast, the OECD has found that although employment growth has been lower within occupations at high risk of automation than those at low risk, there remains employment growth across the board. Thus, a more nuanced reflection on current labour market trends and critical employment research suggests that the availability of work might not be the most imminent crisis facing jobseekers today.

My doctoral research echoes some of the OECD’s findings, drawing on the case of food retail. It concludes that there is reason to be cautious when considering claims surrounding the impact of technological change, as often ‘automation’ has more to do with human labour than the name suggests. While the pandemic has accelerated the use of existing technologies in food retailing, such as online shopping and self-service use in-stores, it has been humans driving these changes rather than robots. In the case of online shopping, warehousing picking and packing remains largely a manual process. The retail infrastructure in the UK remains far from rolling out an Ocado-style system. When there was a surge in online shopping prompted by the first lockdown, thousands of workers were hired to fulfil these roles so the new demand could be met. This is because it remains cheaper to employ humans on low-quality contracts than it is to invest significantly in new technologies.

In the case of retail, it could be argued that it is more urgent to tackle job quality within the sector as an abundance of work still exists, despite what previous predictions had claimed. It has been argued that issues related to job security, access to opportunity, fair treatment at work and  work-life balance need to be addressed when improving job quality – especially in non-standard roles (e.g. part-time, temporary, zero-hour or self-employment) which remain the majority in food retail. While non-standard work is not always low-quality, the use of non-standard arrangements in food retail, coupled with low-pay, poor progression opportunities, the heightened risk of abuse since the pandemic and the use of highly flexible working practices (e.g. temporary contracts and so-called ‘bogus’ self-employed arrangements) have contributed to the degradation of this type of work in recent years.

Consequently, concerns prior to Covid-19 focusing on the availability of work (i.e. job quantity) seem less relevant, as supermarkets continue to hire large numbers of human employees. Arguably, now is the right time for employers to increase productivity by investing in good quality employment, training and new technologies. The post-pandemic recovery period needs stakeholders with the power to shape the future for the better to put the provision of high-quality work at the top of the employment agenda. Thankfully, those with an interest in re-shaping the future of work have already crafted a blueprint of the required changes to improve employment going forward. However, even though essential workers (including those in food retail) have proved just how valuable their labour is at a time of crisis, more needs to be done to recognise this. There are clear employment challenges that need addressing to ensure the future is one that will have more equal benefits for society given the rise of in-work poverty, insecurity and the blurring of lines between home/work life that characterises precarious employment practices today.

The rise in precarious, non-standard working arrangements may appear to offer a cheaper alternative to investing in technologies and labour, yet the impact on productivity and social inequalities will be far more costly looking towards the longer term. Research has shown that low-quality work can negatively impact social inequalities, as people struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living and new demands of work. Yet it is also important to consider that rising inequalities significantly hinder national economic growth, a vital component in the post-pandemic recovery. While it is unlikely that current vacancies will be sustained long-term, we need to move quickly to ensure that we do not revert to a position where we have a crisis of job quality and quantity, caused by a prolonged recovery period and a failure of the relevant stakeholders to act as necessary.    

The government needs to improve employment protections (e.g. sick pay and parental leave), flexible working rights, living wage and working time legislation, in addition to other regulatory mechanisms to improve the quality of non-standard employment. However, while the government has a role to play in setting the minimum bar, it is also the responsibility of employers to engage with the relevant groups (e.g. employers’ associations, trade unions and third sector organisations) and work towards ensuring that good quality employment is made available to all by exceeding these minimum requirements set at the national level.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.