The UK faces the core challenge of providing its population with access to good work. However, investments in the foundations of sustainable growth and a future of good work were patchy or entirely missing from the Autumn Statement. Anna Thomas writes that the country needs a new economic goal and paradigm to deliver wellbeing and prosperity.
Our future prosperity depends on ‘people, capital and ideas,’ according to the new prime minister. So did his chancellor’s Autumn Statement back up these words with fiscal commitments? It would appear not.
According to the Institute for the Future of Work, the UK’s core challenge is access to ‘good work,’ and placing good work at the heart of our economic rebuild is an overarching policy objective that would alloy people, capital, and ideas to deliver both wellbeing and the prosperity the prime minister speaks of. In a sense, this demands a new economic goal and paradigm, fuelled by investment.
Despite the chancellor’s recognition that investment in people, infrastructure, and innovation is essential for sustainable economic growth, commitments were mixed. ‘Vital’ public services like the NHS and education secured budget increases, but investments in the foundations of sustainable growth and a future of good work were patchy or entirely missing. Further education colleges and vocational education received no uplift and, while research and development (R&D) budgets were protected, targets for R&D were reduced on current measures. Thus, the goal of a high-wage, high-skill economy seems further off than ever and, overall, the UK’s fiscal support package remains, in real terms, much less than our OECD peers as we head for a deep recession.
Perhaps in an admission that there is more work to be done, Sir Michael Barber (founder of Blair’s “delivery unit” and formerly chief education advisor at Pearson) has been appointed to advise on skills. Similarly, Sir Patrick Vallance, ex-GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and now lead for the Government Office for Science, has been appointed to advise on the regulation of emerging technologies, with a view to making the UK into “the next Silicon Valley.” Anti-competitive practices in digital markets will be tackled to promote innovation and consumer choice.
This is an important step towards responsible regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) and new technologies, in which huge store is being put by a chancellor who believes that ‘21st century economies will be defined by new developments in AI, quantum technologies, and robotics.’ AI funding rounds, at least, have increased dramatically since 2019, doubling from 5.4M to 12.6M to September 2022, albeit that they are heavily concentrated in London at 62% (as revealed in the Pissarides Review and shared with the BEIS Committee in evidence last week). This is a problem as much as it may be a solution, where risks and benefits are unevenly spread and there is less ‘trickle down’ in this technological transition than those of the past.
Meanwhile, other policy levers are being pulled to allow local and context-sensitive planning. New ‘trailblazer’ devolution deals with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands Combined Authorities are being struck, and there will be three new mayoral roles created in Cornwall, Norfolk, and Suffolk. In the West Midlands, Andy Street has already reported that he is seeking more control over skills, education, and investment incentives to attract good businesses which might enable them to develop a Future of Work Strategy tailored to regional needs and strengths. Building on this and proposals for ‘innovation’ deals, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities should have funding and powers to strike ‘compacts’ with combined authorities and groups of local authorities to allow future of work planning.
This Autumn Statement was delivered to a sombre country facing multiple crises: the cost of living, soaring inflation, labour shortages and a workforce abandoning front-line roles – on top of two decades of economic underperformance and wage stagnation.
Our research, so far, suggests that the single best way to tackle these many problems — as well as align competing objectives and pivot the country towards future prosperity and wellbeing — is through investment in future good work and the conditions across the country that promote it. This must come with a sharper policy focus and the deployment of levers from procurement pledges and good work audits to regulating for human-centred AI. Doing so invites forefronting of the impacts of technology and interrogation of these impacts on work and people.
Our Good Work Monitor uses the Good Work Charter as a framework to measure the amount of good work by local authority. It demonstrates the correlation between good work and wellbeing through a series of measures including life expectancy, life satisfaction and COVID-19 mortalities. The Good Work Time Series examines the positive synergies between the dimensions of good work over a decade, showing that employment and quality work are not a trade-off and pinpointing the areas of the UK that need particular attention to improve access to good work.
Beyond hard budgets, there are a wealth of policy levers that could promote good work as an overarching objective at national, combined authority, and local authority levels, including good work audits, partnerships and procurement pledges.
To ensure coordination, maximise the benefits and minimise the risks arising from the Autumn Statement, the legacy of the Government’s Future of Work Review should be a standing cross-department advisory forum run from the Cabinet Office as a base to develop a Future of Work Strategy. Writing as the government’s lead for this review, Matt Warman MP’s advice on the four areas identified for mapping and attention (automation, skills, place, workers’ rights) are sound, current and aligned with the new PM’s objectives. No one will be spared the pain of the biggest fall in household incomes for a generation.
What we do know is that momentous social inventions will be needed alongside equally momentous technical inventions. These will be key to support people and places experiencing the sharp end of multiple crises transition to future good work.
- Some of the points covered in this blog post will be discussed in the AI Regulation at Work event.
- This blog post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by jose aljovin on Unsplash
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