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A future that works for working people

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
The changing world of work

Work has changed dramatically over the 150 years since the TUC formed. Many of the changes we have seen have been for the better. We now have shorter working hours, in safer workplaces, and while the battle for equality is far from won, steps have been taken to tackle sexism, racism and homophobia at work.

But in the last thirty years, industrial change has been managed in ways that have harmed workers. The transition from a manufacturing to a service economy has been accompanied by weakened rights for workers, and since the financial crisis we have experienced a decade of feeble pay growth and increased insecurity at work.

The next thirty years will see work change again, with the advent of new technologies including robotics and artificial intelligence. Demographic developments and the necessity of meeting our commitments to tackle climate change will also shape employment. This section briefly reviews these trends, focusing particularly on the impact of technology. In the following sections we go on to look at how trade unions can respond to them to ensure a better future for workers.

Change is the only constant…

In 1868, when the TUC was formed, over half the workforce worked in either agriculture or manufacturing. Today, less than ten per cent of workers are in these industries, and over 80 per cent work in the service sector.

Chart 1: The UK economy has shifted away from manufacturing and agriculture
Chart 1: The UK economy has shifted away from manufacturing and agriculture


Technological change has been one significant driver of the changes in the type of job that people do. The tripling of the size of the railway network between 1848 and 18992 saw a move away from agriculture, as did the invention of refrigeration technology. Developments in transport and in computerised tools to manage supply chains saw the globalisation of manufacturing from the 1960s onwards, as well as the rise in jobs in IT and professional services. In 1950, almost one-in-three workers (29 per cent) worked in manufacturing, while one-in-twelve (8 per cent) worked in professional and technical services. By 2016 these shares had reversed (29 per cent worked in professional and technical services, and 9 per cent in manufacturing).3

But political factors have always shaped the way that changes in technology have played out in the workplace. For example, over the past thirty years, Britain’s laissez-faire attitude to industry has seen UK manufacturing employment decline more sharply than any other advanced economy except Switzerland. Our decline has been twice as fast as that of Italy and Spain, and about a third again as fast as that of the United States and France.
 4 The impact of this sharp decline in manufacturing, concentrated in certain areas of the country, has helped to leave Britain now facing the most extreme regional inequality in Europe. 5In the decade since the financial crisis, political decisions including austerity, attacks on trade unions, and a refusal by government to rein in employers’ attempts to push new risks onto workers have played a major role in shaping work. This transfer of risk can be seen in the form of zero-hour contracts, false self-employment and insecure agency work that have seen workers’ pay stagnate and insecurity at work rise.

But today’s workers have already been living through a period of rapid technological change. The chart on the following page uses data from Ofcom (the communications regulator) to show the rapid uptake of digital technologies over the last decade. Eight-in-ten people now own a smartphone, up from less than two-in-ten just a decade ago. And in our polling most workers (61 per cent) said that technology had already changed the way they worked in the last ten years, and that their job was now reliant on this new technology (63 per cent). For some workers, technology seen as futuristic is already part of their working lives:

  • 28 per cent of workers say that machines undertake clerical tasks in their workplace
  • 8 per cent say they are working with machines or robots
  • 8 per cent say that artificial intelligence is already used in their workplace
  • 10 per cent say that some human workers have been replaced with machines
  • 24 per cent say that new technology has introduced new activities or kinds of work that didn’t exist before.
Chart 2: There has been a significant change in every-day technology use over a decade
Chart 2: There has been a significant change in every-day technology use over a decade

Source: Ofcom (2018) ‘A decade of digital dependency’ at…

New challenges?

Many believe that the pace of technological change is accelerating, driven by developments in artificial intelligence and robotics.

New challenges?

Many believe that the pace of technological change is accelerating, driven by developments in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Artificial intelligence

The University of Manchester describes AI as

the name given to a collection of programming and computing techniques that attempt to simulate, and in many cases exceed, aspects of human-level perception, learning and analysis.

Examples might include identifying objects, recognising patterns, or speech recognition. This can be used to enable, for example, translation programmes or voice-operated software.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to automate many tasks currently done by humans in professional roles. For example, AI is already being used to help with fact-checking inside newsrooms.6

This type of technology has improved rapidly, and many tasks previously considered too difficult to automate are now seen as routine. The self-operating Roomba vacuum cleaner, for example, carries out a range of tasks that were considered almost impossible to achieve in the 1980s.

Predictions of a ‘general intelligence’, however, remain a long way off. Writing for the University of Manchester, Professor Vasco Costello argues that

Human-level AI will likely exist, but not this year, and perhaps not this century… A common metaphor used to describe the situation is that we’re making good progress climbing a tree on our way to the moon – meaning both that we’re still very far from our goal, and that although we are advancing, there is no guarantee that we can keep going along our current path, and may have to try something altogether different. 7


The University of Manchester’s definition of robots is as follows:

Robots are programmable machines that carry out physical processes and may be controlled by a human operator or an AI system (or, commonly, a combination of both). 8

Examples might include welding, carrying heavy loads, conducting surgery (directed by a human), or self-driving cars – an example of where robotics and AI meet.

Sales of industrial robots have been increasing swiftly (see chart 3), although it’s notable that the UK is a laggard in the use of this type of technology. The UK rate was only 10 robot units for every million hours worked in 2015, compared to 131 in the US, 167 in Japan and 133 in Germany in the same year.9

Chart 3: Estimated worldwide shipments of industrial robots
Chart 3: Estimated worldwide shipments of industrial robots

Source: International Federation of Robotics (2018) ‘Industrial robot sales increase worldwide by 31 percent’ at…

The next sections discuss the impact of these changes on jobs and pay, on working time, and on workers’ chance to have a say in shaping their work.

But it’s worth noting at this point that these changes have the potential to make the UK significantly better off. The UK government has estimated that robotics and autonomous systems could deliver a 15 per cent boost in output (GVA) by 2025.10 10The consultancy firm PWC has estimated that UK GDP will be up to 10 per cent higher in 2030 as a result of artificial intelligence, the equivalent of boost to GDP of more than £200 billion, or extra spending power of up to £2,300 a year per household.11

At a time when UK productivity has been flatlining for a decade, these predictions seem out of line with our current experience. Private sector investment as a share of GDP is the fourth lowest of all advanced economies. Moreover, government investment is barely compensating, with the UK spending well below average and ranking 25th of 33 OECD countries. Government plans for the coming years will improve the position only marginally.

This low investment level helps explain why record employment levels have been accompanied by continued slow growth. This is not helped by the uncertainty surrounding our exit from the EU.
It’s clear that if we are to realise the potential of new technology to deliver higher growth we will need a more strategic approach to investing in the economy. But with this investment in place, we are optimistic about the potential of innovation to deliver new sources of growth, as it has done throughout our history.

Technological change is not the only factor shaping the future of work in the UK. As we argue below, technology is not destiny. The distribution of power in the workplace and beyond will be the critical determinant of the kind of future we face.

But other changes will also have an impact. The necessity of meeting our climate change commitments means significant changes to our energy supply. The government estimates that the ‘low carbon economy’ already employs over 400,000 people,12but managed poorly, the transition to less carbon intensive forms of energy could pose significant risks for workers in energy intensive industries. And demographic change will mean that we will need the economy to be more productive in order to help support an ageing population. While in 2017, for every 100 working people there are 30 people over state pension age, by 2037 the number of people over state pension age is expected to increase to 35.13

If managed well, technology can help us to meet these challenges and deliver a better world of work. But at present, there are signs that technological progress is taking us further away from the world of work we want. Pay is flatlining, work feels more intense and less secure for many, and workers have little opportunity to make their voices heard. In the next sections we examine how trade unions can help turn these trends around.

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