The below article is a summary of the full discussion paper published by the IPA and Progress, which can be found here.

In 2016, despite the record high employment figures, the United Kingdom workforce faces an uncertain future. I am not simply referring to Brexit – although a cause of concern for many, it is only the most visible of a series of factors which threaten to throw into doubt much of what we take for granted about working life in the UK. Slower moving but perhaps in the end more important are two emerging macro-trends; the rise of atypical working arrangements and the growth of disruptive new forms of technology that have the potential to change the nature of work itself.

To start with the atypical working, it is really several, related but distinct trends. Remote working, self-employment and part-time employment in the UK have all reached record highs in the past few years. The rate of change appears to be accelerating too – the share of the workforce which is self-employed has risen more since 2008 than in the previous 30 years before that. At its extreme, this takes the form of the emerging ‘gig economy’, where many independent contractors move between short-term engagements – often depending on intermediary platforms such as Uber, Airbnb or TaskRabbit.

This trend brings with it certain advantages; more flexibility and autonomy for employees, low barriers for new entrants and a highly competitive market for consumers. On the other hand the transition from being an employee to a contractor means the loss of many employment rights, including sick pay, holiday pay and job security. Contractors are responsible for their own training and skills. They are not unionised and benefit from no collective bargaining arrangements. All this poses a real challenge to the traditional model of workplace relations, particularly for those who want to protect workers’ rights and promote employee engagement.

Of course, the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and remote working wouldn’t be possible at all without the second of these macro-trends; the spread of new workplace technology. From IBM’s Watson learning to diagnose cancers to Amazon’s automated warehouse picking robots, human workers increasingly find themselves working alongside and around machines rather than fellow humans. In the short term, this poses challenges around dehumanization and disengagement from work when such technologies are introduced (though in some cases technology can also free human workers from drudgery and increase their engagement). In the longer term, it threatens to further erode the bargaining power of labour vs capital in our economy and could lead growing inequality and unemployment.

Finally we return to the third major source of uncertainty for the UK workforce – Brexit. Not a trend so much as a sudden shock – and one we are yet to really feel. At the moment it is rather like a waterfall approaching in the distance; we can hear the roar, know its inevitability, but are yet to see the size and shape of it or what the river might look like on the other side. And there are reasons to fear it will not be good for workers. David Davis may have stated that he has no inclination to repeal most current workplace rights, but once the UK is no longer subject to European Union law that door will always be open for future governments. As for which regulations are most likely to disappear, areas such as the agency workers regulations are top of the list – precisely the areas that need more rather than less attention, given the other trends described above. The time is now for serious thinking about what we want the future of work to look like.

Patrick Briône is Head of Policy & Research at the IPA