Future of work

Everywhere, people are talking about the huge changes coming for us and the way we work. There’s no shortage of hyperbole – ‘three thousand times bigger than the Industrial Revolution’ claims one headline, ‘a radical re-write of the planet’ says another. The Labour Party’s Future of Work Commission was tasked with figuring out how quickly things will change and whether we should believe the hype.

Labour’s finance spokesperson Grant Robertson heads up the Commission and he’s spent a year thinking about what work will look like in the future. His answer: we’re in for quite a ride. Tomorrow’s workers may have several employers at once, several careers over a lifetime – and face unemployment on a far more regular basis.

Illustration by Jem Yoshioka

The Commission’s work has evolved from a series of issues papers into a conference and – eventually, we’re promised – policy. But how much do we really know, and how much should we be worrying? Working Life spoke to Mr Robertson, crystal ball at the ready.

Why did Labour make this such a big project?

We can see the massive impact that changing technology and patterns of work are having on working people and if we want to be a government of the future we have to prepare ourselves. We’ve got a study that says 46% of the jobs right now in NZ won’t be there in 15-20 years. Every single working person knows their experience of work has changed at a rapid pace and there is a real risk of high levels of unemployment and growing inequality. Also, the Labour Party is the party of workers, and if the nature and experience of work is changing we need to be there looking at that change. We need to make sure people can take advantage of opportunities, and mitigate the negative impacts.

How certain can you be about what the future holds, though?

This is not Nostradamus’ future of work commission. It’s not about predicting exactly what happens but it’s about giving New Zealanders the confidence to face the changes. Work’s always changed and when the motorcar was invented, 7000 blacksmiths in London needed to find something else to do. Knowing that change is coming means we really do need to be preparing for it now. Not knowing the absolute end point doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for the journey.

You’ve said you’re attracted by the ‘flexicurity’ model being embraced by Denmark.

We want to try to learn from it and create a New Zealand based solution. We already have a very flexible labour market, what we don’t have is the security that goes with this policy. That’s the focus of the Danish model. We can’t guarantee you a job but we can guarantee you work. You will always be able to go into training and you will have income security while you train for the next position.
We don’t have a 50-cents-in-the-dollar tax rate like Denmark but we think these are critical investments. Our policy of 3 years free tertiary education is a big investment but we have to do that because the long-run benefits are so important. We won’t be able to do a scheme that’s as generous as Denmark but we really do want people to be learning for life.

Labour's finance spokesperson Grant Robertson

Labour's finance spokesperson Grant Robertson

The Future of Work Commission has some core guiding principles and the very first one is decent work. People getting a good education, having adaptable transferable skills, getting opportunities to create their own businesses and putting power in their hands. How do we help small and medium-sized businesses? How can we support regional development? How do we make sure the industries that get built are sustainable? Other parts are more focused on working people themselves. We want to ensure they can face world with confidence.
What do you see as the purpose of this learning?

It is not just university education, either. It’s important we support people into trades and apprenticeships. There is more likely to be work for tradespeople than accountants in the future, and it’s important we continue to support that.

Where do you see the public service in all this?

It’ll be critical in multiple ways. The public service has a very important role in supporting all New Zealanders through this. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment used to have a Future of Work Unit but it doesn’t now - this should be a critical issue for them, the Ministry of Social Development and the population based agencies.

In terms of the work public servants do, technology is already changing that. But we need to incorporate these technologies and still ensure the high degree of service New Zealanders expect today. A good example would be SmartGate. New Zealand led the world in a technology change, but public servants were there to ensure service was still ‘human’ and worked well. There will be change and disruption in work patterns for public servants, but they will have a huge and important role.

And what role will unions play?

I’ve just been in Paris at an OECD meeting on the future of work, and unions played a big role, particularly because it’ll be critical to balance flexibility and security.

Genuinely flexible work is a good thing. But that means a system where people build work around their lives rather than the other way round. I’m talking about paid parental leave, getting more ability to have flexible work options around family. But when that’s forced upon you, as with zero hour contracts and unreasonable work conditions, that is not the kind of flexibility we want.

In the US there’s a freelancers union and it’s growing fast. That’s because people in the ‘sharing economy’ may not need help negotiating contracts, but they realise they need support and organisation. On the flipside, there will be challenges for the union movement. The old models of organisation will be challenged. You won’t have all your employees in the same place at the same time. The CTU and unions have been involved in the Commission and I know the union movement gets the big opportunities and challenges. They’ll have an enormous and important role, being able to be there with workers and ensure a just transition.

What will the biggest challenge be?

In the future, some workers will have 2 or 3 employers at any one moment. There are studies showing that school leavers will have 6 to 8 different careers, let alone jobs. We’ll see the ongoing issues speeding up – keeping membership numbers up, engaging new generations of workers, making them aware of what their rights are and what role unions can play in protecting those rights. Combine the long decline in union membership with that changing pattern of work - I think that’s the biggest challenge.

After all the work the Commission’s done, are you more or less optimistic about the future?

I think I’m more optimistic because I’ve seen more people grasp the importance of this issue. It’s unusual as a Labour Party politician to have businesses chasing you down but that’s happening because they realise how big the issue is. But we need to be upping our game right now. If we simply drift on, assuming the market will solve everything, we will have rising inequality. The person who’s the forklift driver whose job has been automated then becomes a driver for a company, knowing driverless cars and drones will probably start delivering things he’s delivering now inside 10 years. If we sit there and let someone like that be exposed to the market, it isn’t going to work.

There is going to be less full-time paid work as we traditionally know it. Can we recognise unpaid work – raising kids, caring for elderly people? Will it be easier to use technology to help people create their own businesses? Like the cleaners at Parliament – can they create a co-operative and become their own bosses? We can create and build wealth in New Zealand from the ground up, and it’s potentially quite exciting.

The first year of the Commission was always going to be about listening and I don’t apologise for that at all. We came out of that election campaign knowing we had to do that. I’ve done hundreds of presentations, thousands of submissions. So many good ideas have emerged that we can now say, we’re ready to do this.