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The world of work is changing. As the new economy has begun to operate on a global scale, the nature of employment in Britain has had to shift accordingly. To find out about the impact of and response to these changes, we spoke to Professor Anne Green, a geographer working in Warwick University’s Institute for Employment Research.

How has employment policy in the UK changed over recent decades?

Policy has shifted its emphasis away from ‘moving jobs to people’ – the idea of trying to promote growth in underdeveloped parts of the UK. The focus now seems to be on ‘moving people to jobs’ – that is, encouraging people to be more mobile, either locally through commuting or nationally through migration.

In the past, attempts were made to create employment in areas of high unemployment. But these areas might not have had the local supply chains to support the businesses being moved there. There is also a recognition – in the current climate of slow or negative economic growth, at least – that business needs to be fostered in areas that it naturally occurs in.

For example, a number of businesses are gravitating towards Cambridge. But moving those very same businesses to rural South Wales does not guarantee that they would thrive as well as they did in Cambridge. So there has been a shift in favour of working with, rather than against, the forces of geography.

Why are people now expected to migrate and commute further for work?

Policy makers have recognised the need to increase people’s travel horizons, which is important for two reasons.

Firstly, you cannot necessarily expect there to be a job in your local area as there might have been 50 or 60 years ago. The world was changed and, although some people may be able to find work in their own neighbourhood, a local job is not guaranteed.

Secondly, some people are having to move to different parts of the country to get jobs. So a key employability skill might actually involve a willingness and ability to be spatially mobile.

Does this involve ‘getting on your bike’ and ‘getting on the bus’ as some politicians might have suggested?

In the 1980s then-employment secretary Norman Tebbit used the phrase ‘getting on your bike’, referring to his father search for work in the economic depression of the 1930s. There is this idea that you have to move around, looking for employment until you find it.

In the aftermath of the 1981 riots he responded to a suggestion that rioting was the natural reaction to unemployment by saying: ‘I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He did not riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking untill he found it.’

A similar idea was expressed by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith in October 2010. He said that many of the unemployed in the South Wales town of Merthyr ‘had become static and did not know that if they got on a bus for an hour's journey, they would be in Cardiff and could look for the jobs there.’

These ‘get on your bike, get on the bus’ comments raise issues about where job opportunities are available, and where they are not. The ‘get on your bus’ comment also highlights the fact that many of the unemployed in Merthyr are reliant on public transport. Now, this raises questions as to whether public transport services are actually geared towards working patterns in the 21st century.

Many more jobs now have unsocial hours since many services run 24/7. People may therefore have evening or shift work and have to return home late. If they are reliant on public transport, then it needs to run early in the morning or late at night as well. The reality is more complex than a world of conventional nine-to-five jobs.

So how is employment in 21st century Britain different from that in the 20th century?

The national profile of employment opportunities is changing. In broad terms, there has been a big shift in jobs away from the manufacturing sector, towards the service sector. These changes have been accompanied by the emergence of the ‘hourglass economy’.

At the lower end of the economy, there are now many low-skilled jobs in the service sector –for example, waiters and waitresses. This has been balanced out to some extent by the fact that the number of low-skilled jobs in the manufacturing sectors have declined. So the number of jobs at the bottom of the hourglass has largely stayed the same.

Many of the jobs lost in recent years have been in general administrative, clerical and secretarial roles – middle-level jobs. Offices used to have large amounts of secretaries working on documents. Now, with the widespread use of ICT, people work on their own documents. So there has been a decline in jobs in the middle of the hourglass.

Meanwhile, there has been a growth at the top end of the spectrum, with an increasing amount of professional jobs. Combined with a shrinking of middle-level jobs, this increase in top-level jobs has created an hourglass economy.

What are the implications of the hourglass economy?

Well, it raises issues about social mobility in the UK. Can route ways be created from the bottom of the hourglass, to the top? Can people progress in employment? If so, how? Routes from the bottom to the top might seem harder to achieve if the opportunities in the middle are increasingly limited.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure that people have the ability to progress in their careers?

Clearly, the state has had a role to play to ensuring a good level of education for people. But currently, university students are paying more for their fees than they ever have in recent decades. So there is a trend in which the government pays for compulsory education and contributes only some of the costs involved in young people gaining specialist skills. This is not limited to a university education; vocational skills through apprenticeships have been promoted and have grown a lot in recent years.

As well as the government, employers have a growing responsibility to invest a skilled workforce. After all, they will benefit from having more skilled employees. And, of course, individuals will also benefit from developing their own skills, since they will be able to earn higher salaries. In the context of limited government expenditure, the responsibility for funding education falls more on the individual and the employer than might have previously been the case.

Has working life become more flexible than it previously has been?

You only have to look at consumer services to see that opening times (and therefore working hours) have shifted a great deal. Businesses are now open earlier in the day, close later in the day and often operate at weekends. For example, UK shops only began opening on Sundays as of 1994. For employees to cope with this, there is now more part-time and flexible working. So the world of work of has changed quite considerably over recent decades.

There is certainly a shift towards flexible employment. Employers are increasingly wanting to have flexibility in terms of numbers of workers (numerical flexibility) and functions of workers (functional flexibility). This allows companies to meet consumer demand, whilst keeping staffing costs to a minimum.

Employers may be demanding more flexibility, but this raises the question: ‘who is being flexible?’ Some employees have had far more flexibility than others, and it is generally the people who are in economically strong positions that are able to gain more flexibility.

Does this increased flexibility involve working from home?

There are currently questions about how much people should be allowed to work at home. There is an idea that people working at home lose the sociability of the workplace. They also lose out on the knowledge exchange that comes from meeting and exchanging ideas with colleagues, either formally or informally.

It is likely that people will still want the sociability of a central workplace, perhaps alongside the freedom of working from home sometimes. If people are working from home more, this will have implications on how we live. For example, people might want bigger houses to accommodate a home office.

What role has the Internet played in allowing people to work in remote locations?

The Internet offers opportunities to undertake tasks in areas where it would not have previously been possible. Via the Internet, people can now work with others in different parts of the country and also in different countries of the world.

But there is an ongoing question about Internet speeds. The highest speeds of Internet tend to be in the more densely populated areas of the country. So there are certainly areas for improvements in rural Internet performance. That said, it is absolutely clear that the Internet offers opportunities for some types of employment that were not previously available. The Internet opens up opportunities for entrepreneurialism, even in less developed parts of the UK.

Could entrepreneurialism be the answer to creating employment opportunities in underdeveloped areas?

Rather than trying to promote entrepreneurship in only regions of high unemployment, there is now a focus on generating growth everywhere, based on the skills already available in those areas. The promotion of entrepreneurship has developed into a national policy. But, because of the skills of the population, some regions will find it easier to be entrepreneurial than others.

Where the population’s skills match the opportunities available, then there is a great potential for entrepreneurship. But if skills and opportunities are mismatched, then the ability for entrepreneurship to develop is much more limited.

Peripheral rural areas tend to suffer most. Their ability to be entrepreneurial is limited by the ‘educating out’ of young people, whereby some of the more academically successful students move out of their home area to go onto university. And they often do not return, at least certainly not immediately.

More accessible rural areas – those within commuting distance of cities - are better placed to partake in entrepreneurialism, especially by tapping into the economic growth of nearby urban areas.

Looking forward to the next 20 years, what do you predict for the nature of employment in Britain?

At the moment – in a time of economic gloom – it is quite difficult to look ahead. Any prediction made now can be negatively influenced by prevailing conditions.

It is likely that the number of high-level, professional jobs will continue to grow. And the more skilled an individual is, the better placed they will be in the future labour market. It is also likely that people will have more flexibility throughout their working lives, with professionals doing a range of jobs across the different stages of their careers.

Globally, there are a lot of ‘unknowns’. The progress of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) will be the cause of considerable change in employment worldwide. But it might well be that we see a reversal of outsourcing, whereby employment currently outsourced to the BRICs is actually brought back to Britain.

Finally, there are big issues about access to energy, water and food. Issues like the 2013 horsemeat scandal make people think about local production. So there may be a trend towards the localisation of some aspects of the economy.

Future events will certainly change our current assumptions and expectations. Existing trends could speed up, slow down, stall or even reverse. A lot can change in the 20 years.

Anne was interviewed in May 2013