When William Huskisson became the first person to be hit by a train in 1830 he also became the perfect hook for every op-ed about technological change. As the story goes, Huskisson saw Stephenson’s Rocket coming down the tracks and had time to get out of the way, but he panicked and was, unfortunately, literally run over by the dawn of a new technological era.
It’s an unsubtle but illustrative example of how fast moving technology changes (or in Huskisson’s case, ends) lives. The Rocket was the first steam-powered train between Manchester’s mills and Liverpool’s ports. Before that, travel between the two cities was horse-drawn and at a stately pace of 2-4mph. The Rocket’s 16mph was like warp speed by comparison. Today’s 37-minute journey on the Transpennine Express might be slow and frustrating to everyone who lives in the north of England, but it would have been unimaginable 200 years ago.
Since that day in 1830, mass technological changes have continued to lessen the importance of factors that were previously critical to earning money – for example, needing to be within walking distance of work. Post-pandemic, more and more roles are being listed as remote. We are living through a paradigm shift in how we think about work, which may or may not be good for Britain.
Already startups are hiring remote talent based abroad, for jobs like coders, data analysts or software engineers. In some ways, that’s great news: a startup in Newcastle that can now hire talent anywhere, a web developer in Northampton can work anywhere, without needing to worry about geography. But that startup is now competing with companies in Silicon Valley, while the web developer is competing for jobs with developers in Slovakia.
So often, when talk moves to the future of work, the conversation is dominated by robots and future skills. But we should also be talking about how and where we work, and that’s already changing. Already our employment frameworks are beginning to feel outdated – Britain is one of the world’s premier service economies, but our 9-5 framework is structured around the needs of a production line one.
Some sectors are already butting up against this. The canary in the coalmine is the gig economy. Platforms are radically expanding people’s working options, with startups and scale ups bringing more competition and choice to everything from web development to accountancy, physical therapy and private catering. By making it seamless to find, vet and connect with customers, platforms are enabling people to earn extra income and work around other commitments like education or care. It also makes it possible to have a ‘side hustle’ that monetise a passion, hobby or skill without affecting an entire career. Working in ‘gigs’ won’t be for everyone, but for those who want or need it, it’s invaluable and enables people to earn in ways it would be impossible to do if their only option was traditional employment, with its reciprocal obligations and set hours.
But the failure of legislation to keep pace is strangling growth. Right now, gig startups tell us they want to do more for the people on their platforms. Some want to offer the option of accessing specialised insurance, others want to offer the option of additional training, counselling, or be able to sign up users with sector-specific requirements like a DBS check. But under the current (uncertain) employment categories, there is a risk that these actions would turn a platform for finding work into an employer in the eyes of the law.
But sorting this out never seems to make its way to the top of the Government’s ‘to do’ list, nor does scoping out the other potential changes coming down the line. We’re still waiting for the Employment Bill, first promised in 2019 then quietly abandoned in 2021 and 2022. A review of modern working practices was undertaken in 2016, but things have gone quiet since then. In 2022 Matt Warman was tasked with undertaking a new Future of Work Review, but this is now in limbo after he changed jobs. Just this week the Government published its response to a 2018 consultation exploring how to make the rules on employment status and rights clearer but had to conclude it was difficult to recommend substantial changes because so much time had passed between 2018 and now.
Back in 1830, William Huskisson knew the train was coming. But he didn’t know what to do, and stepped backwards and forwards on the tracks in increasing panic until he got hit. We can’t do the same when it comes to the future of work. Things are happening in the employment market, whether or not legislation adapts to the change – if social and technological change is moving at the speed of the Rocket, our legislative response needs to be faster than the horse-drawn cart.
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