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The four futures of work: Coping with uncertainty in an age of radical technologies

The debate around technology and the future of work grows louder by the day. Rightly so; we’re confronted regularly with news of apparent breakthroughs in radical technologies, seemingly capable of disrupting whole industries, perhaps our very conception of work itself. With livelihoods at stake, it is natural that the public conversation is growing in urgency, along with the expectation for positive action to safeguard a future of good work. This is the need the RSA Future Work Centre was founded to address. Now eight months into our programme, this report marks our attempt to look into the future, highlight critical challenges that may face workers, and offer policy and practice interventions as potential remedies. In doing so we have entered a crowded field. Consultancies, think tanks, government departments, media pundits – a wide range of stakeholders have offered their view on how the world of work will shape up in the coming years. But such opinions are largely expressed as predictions: one commentator says 10 percent of jobs are at risk of automation. Another says 5 percent. Yet another claims the true figure is closer to 35 percent. We find these numerical forecasts to be flawed. They are reductive, prone to bias and often based on mistaken assumptions. Above all, they are futile in the face of the vast complexity and unpredictability of major forces in the world, including the development and adoption of new technologies; trends that are impossible to predict with certainty. In this report we suggest an alternative futures method in the form of scenario planning. Rather than offering a singular prediction for the future of work, this method yields several distinct and divergent visions of what may come to pass. Following this exercise led us to generate four scenarios for the UK labour market in 2035: the Big Tech Economy, the Precision Economy, the Exodus Economy, and the Empathy Economy. While they are not exhaustive portrayals of the future, they capture a wide range of plausible outcomes and present them in a way that is vivid and easy to grasp. Ultimately, we hope these scenarios are a practical tool to help those in positions of responsibility adequately prepare today’s workforce for tomorrow’s workplace, whether that is civil servants in the Treasury advising on changes to tax policy, or FE college leaders questioning how their curricula should evolve to meet new skill demands.