In 2018/19, ESRC undertook a series of scoping workshops across the UK on the future of work in order to explore the shape of a new research agenda in this space.
Around 200 senior stakeholders with research, policy and practice expertise took part in the workshops. Participants came both from academia and from across the public, private and third sectors. The workshops focused on five meta-themes:
- emerging technologies, skills, and training
- new work practices, workplaces, and business models
- inequalities, insecure employment, and in-work poverty
- job quality, health, and wellbeing
- lifelong resilience and sustainability.
The key aims of the scoping activity were to identify critical gaps in research, data and methods within these thematic areas. Also, critically, to identify areas where ESRC could add significant value to the space, above and beyond existing and planned activities by ourselves and other stakeholders.
As a result of our engagement with the community, ESRC identified two under-researched and highly relevant areas where our funding has the potential to make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge and to practice.
The challenge of successfully navigating and managing transitions over the course of a working life was a consistent theme across all workshops.
Participants emphasised that ‘life-course’ and ‘whole life’ approaches to transitions are needed. Whilst also stressing that it is important to understand the specific factors at play at different times in people’s working lives. For example first transitions into work or transitions out of work into retirement.
Transitions do not happen in isolation, and supporting long-term sustainable work pathways requires a holistic perspective.
Power and voice in a changing world of work
As with ‘managing transitions’, issues around labour rights, labour organisation, labour voice and, critically, dynamics of power were raised continuously across all of the five meta-themes.
Participants noted that many stakeholders talk about industrial relations and ‘Industrial Relations 4.0’ but do these terms, and their implications, accurately reflect contemporary realities and experiences.
Particularly when fewer and fewer people work in what might be termed ‘traditional’ industrial settings. This theme is particularly apposite with regards to the widespread ‘digitisation’ of the work agenda.
The past few years, and not least the substantial impact of the ongoing COVID pandemic, have only served to highlight the critical importance of these two overarching themes.
About the subthemes
It is important to underscore that all of the sub-themes listed above are closely intertwined, and in many cases are not easily separated from one another.
The categorisation made here should not be taken as a conceptual statement. It has simply been done to help highlight and begin to unpack the multi-faceted nature of working life.
Moreover, while one or other of these sub-themes might at first glance speak more clearly to certain stakeholders, both have implications for:
- groups of individuals
- the broader social and economic ecosystem.