Rethinking the safety net for the 21st century

For generations a job for life has been the norm. Today, while paid employment is still a reality for most, digital trends have sparked a revolution in how we work, and for some this means that work — and life — is more precarious…

Rowan Conway
7 min readOct 17, 2019

Employment in the UK has reached a record high of 32.75 million. Despite this fact, there is a rising concern that the labour market is fragmenting into low paying, poorly protected jobs and some economists believe the jobs market has become increasingly precarious for people. Many new jobs are now ‘atypical’ — with self-employment, zero-hours and temporary contract arrangements all growing. Self-employment has outpaced growth in other forms of employment and nearly 5 million people in the UK now work for themselves. Gig work is also on the rise: recent research from the TUC found that 7.5 million people have now worked via a gig economy platform. The changing nature of jobs is a key trend to watch as digital innovation continues to wreak havoc on every type of business from restaurants to financial services.

Figure 1: Changes in self-employment and non-standard contracts since 1992 (RSA analysis of Labour Force Survey)

Good gigs?

But are these trends good or bad? According to the latest analysis from the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, rising atypical work does not automatically mean that new work is bad — from CIPD’s perspective it’s just different. The HR body maintains that ‘the self employed continue to have higher levels of job satisfaction than employees’ but when it comes to gig work, subtle differences show up in their research: while gig workers seem as satisfied on many job quality indicators as those in regular work, they weren’t on income security, hours or feeling that they were their own boss.

As a tech-driven type of employment, gig work is an emergent field, and as the technology changes it has the potential to reshape future demand for labour. It’s important to note that the gig economy is continuously mutating beast — right now we think of gig workers as taxi-drivers or food delivery riders, but with new platform entrants continuously joining the market, established professions such as law, psychotherapy and accountancy are all becoming “gig-able” services.

One-sided flexibility

Gig work can offer people the flexibility to fit work around other commitments, but there is a growing concern that such flexibility is ‘one-sided’ with employers seeking “to transfer all risk onto the shoulders of workers in ways which make people more insecure”. The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices in 2017 put forward a package of measures that start to address this, and in 2018 a spate of court rulings followed which cracked down on ‘bogus self-employment’. But the reality for self employed workers — bogus or not — is that they miss out on key protections such as sick pay, parental leave and pension contributions. This leaves the fastest growing segment of the working population most at risk of economic insecurity.

Economic insecurity in 2019

What does economic insecurity look like at a population level? National statistics are a lag indicator (a metric that follows an event) and cannot convey the lived experience of people in the midst of change. So today the RSA has produced a snapshot report with findings from a new RSA / Populus survey examining the 2019 experience of workers, how they are coping financially, and how that has changed since a 2017 RSA report. We look at the following dimensions of economic insecurity:

· Wages, pay level, as well as pay variability.

· Savings, assets and other forms of capital.

· Personal debt.

· Perceived ability to make ends meet.

· Job security.

· Perceived agency to enter or exit the labour market and change jobs.

The key findings

Our key insight is that economic insecurity is growing in the UK. The proportion of workers reporting that they experience economic security in 2019 has edged upwards since 2017 and today almost 1 in 4 workers have trouble meeting their basic living costs because of income volatility (up from one in five in 2017). A significant number lack financial resilience and the majority (59 percent) would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £500.

Debt and savings are also growing concerns, with 45 percent of workers expecting to have too little in savings and pensions to maintain a decent living of living in retirement. 32 percent are concerned about their current levels of debt. In addition to these problems with their financial circumstances, 21 percent of workers experience problems with job security, reporting there is a high likelihood they will experience unemployment in the next two years. Meanwhile 29 percent say they feel less secure in their jobs than they did five years ago. Just 35 percent of workers report that they feel they have good scope for progressing within their career (down from 40 percent in 2017).

Download the full report here

A multitude of drivers are contributing to this rising economic insecurity, from inflation to ‘automation anxiety’. 73 percent of our sample reported that they were concerned that the cost of living will continue to outpace wages. Almost half (49 percent) were concerned about the impact that Brexit will have on living standards, and more than a third (35 percent) of workers feared that the rising cost of housing may force them to relocate. Our findings show that issues such as poor savings and income volatility are not just contained to ‘atypical’ corners of the labour market; they are widespread.

Time to rethink the safety net?

Clearly, these figures merit concern — and leave us wondering what we can do about them. How do we intervene when this seems like an unstoppable force of digital disruption? As with all great technological advances, digital platforms have pros and cons. Apps provide us with easy access to work, consumer choice and quick routes to services, but an associated rise in gig work could also mean that regular hours, mortgage verification, pension contributions, parental leave and paid holidays become obsolete. So, now is the time to rethink the safety net for workers in the 21st century. As Nicolas Colin, founder of the Family and author of Hedge has said:

“Today’s more entrepreneurial economy exposes individuals to greater risks. And many of these risks are arising for the first time: the constant pressure exerted by consumers on workers… the general instability that is part of an economy driven by increasing returns to scale; the difficulty of accessing housing in major cities…So not only do we need an even stronger and broader Safety Net, we also need to radically change the approach that was taken in the post-war era.”

So how might we do that? Call us Utopian, but at the RSA we don’t believe that we should just concede that advances in technology must result in winners and losers. New technology itself has provided us with the powerful tools to design systems for workers of the future that could prevent economic insecurity or the feelings of powerless that come with change. We need to harness that power of tech, not benignly surrender to it.

To do this, the RSA has embarked on a pilot programme with the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth and Alt/Now to explore the challenges of the 21st century safety net, seeking out pioneering social businesses and projects to unleash the creativity of entrepreneurs to enable good work in the future. This Economic Security Impact Accelerator is not a traditional tech accelerator or challenge prize — it is a entrepreneurial programme that puts social impact in the foreground, as opposed to a secondary concern — and seeks to catalyse a ‘workertech’ movement and build a field of changemakers to grow their efforts together to address the emergent challenges of modern work. To quote Nicolas Colin again:

“It won’t be enough to simply adjust the policies that worked in the past (a bit less toward unemployment here, a bit more toward professional training there). We need to show off a radical imagination and start experimenting on a large scale, aiming at those populations that are most representative of tomorrow’s economy: proximity service workers, startup employees, independent workers, entrepreneurs.”

The Economic Security Impact Accelerator aims to be radically imaginative at a time that desperately needs this creativity. The cohort are all working on bold ideas to stem the tide of tech determinism, and enable workers to reclaim power over their working lives. As our Alt/Now colleague Charlie Leadbeater has said — real social change requires this kind of a movement — and with this programme we hope to catalyse what he would call a “creative community with a cause.”

Watch this space for more updates on how the cohort are getting along.

Download the report here

Follow on Twitter at @RowanElenaConway



Rowan Conway

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.