The nature of work is changing. The traditional 8 hours a day five days a week approach of the old world has now fallen away, replaced instead by a much more flexible, much less secure type of work. Old jobs are disappearing, replaced by new, high tech jobs, whilst falling rates of unionisation are radically redrawing the way we consider labour rights. Not only that, but the financial collapse of 2008 has changed the economic landscape of Britain, and the entire world, leading to fresh starts and the drastic redesigning of the economy.
Perhaps the biggest change to the world of work in recent years has been the interminable rise of the so-called “gig economy”. This term describes an economy made of less secure, less fixed, less inflexible work, including freelance employment and the use of “self-employed” contractors for services like Deliveroo and Uber. The gig economy has made traditional nine to five somewhat obsolete, and the role of this formerly standard style continues to diminish.
But the gig economy has not been good for everyone. It has given its workers a greater degree of independence, and it has helped customers get good quality services quickly. And yet, Uber, as well as others, have been roundly criticised for the way it treats its contactors. The company has been the victim of excoriating reports about the working conditions of its drivers, was briefly banned in London, and has recently been told to treat its workers as employees, not self-employed, by the court of appeals, meaning they must be given the minimum wage and other key rights.
Whilst the surface employment data shows that the number of jobs filled in certain industries have surged in the last decade, and that unemployment is at a record low, the true story goes much deeper than that. The true picture of Britain’s economy today is of a workforce demoralised by stagnating wages, huge corporate bonuses, and high rates of inflation, uncertain working hours – thanks to zero hour contracts – and the closure of huge retail chains, such as BHS and ToysRUs.
The rise of the digital world, and with it the gig economy, has challenged the status quo, but it has not, thus far, benefitted ordinary workers, who have received a pretty rough deal. A potent cocktail of factors has led to work becoming more stressful, and spare time and work time being blurred. The change in jobs has coincided with the collapse of unions, and thus workers have had nobody to ensure the new system works for them.
Surface data, as alluring, promising, and hopeful as it looks, is extremely misleading when it comes to the nature of employment in Britain in 2018. Not only does employment data not include those judged as “self-employed” – those in the gig-economy – it also fails to detail how many are in zero hours contracts, it does not set out living standards or the quality of pay, and it doesn’t give any indication as to the level of job satisfaction felt by people. When you take all of that in to account, the reality of work in 21st century Britain is very different to the picturesque idea conjured by statistics.