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Beyond Jobs: what if employment policy caught up with labour market reality?

Wingham Rowan, 13 January 2014

Wingham Rowan, of the Beyond Jobs programme, continues our series of guest blogs addressing key issues around jobs and livelihoods in the changing international labour market.

He calls for government to face the reality that jobs for life have gone and to support better opportunities and protection for people offering services on an ad hoc basis.

For a longer version of his argument, see Wingham's TED talk. And for more in our blog series see:


A report from the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) towards the end of last year confirmed what too many workers already knew: the UK labour market is hollowing out.

Jobs at the top of the economy are expanding slightly, jobs at the bottom more so. But the middle is collapsing.

Quality admin and production jobs are being automated, with people finding themselves increasingly forced into low paid, insecure, low skilled, monotonous roles in the service sector.

Despite this, creating new jobs remains key government policy. In the UK we spend around £1bn a year on employment support schemes such as the Work Programme, despite questionable returns.

Other countries have had similar experiences. The European Union (EU) is spending £6bn to create more jobs for young people, despite little evidence of success.

Perhaps policymakers are missing the point? Perhaps the days of most people having a sustainable, satisfying, job are – like it or not - behind us?

Nowadays, the reality is that citizens are grasping whatever economic opportunity they can. That’s why websites like AirBnB, which allows you to rent your sofa to tourists, or Taskrabbit, which creates a market for running errands in any neighbourhood, are growing exponentially.

But this kind of activity is also insecure. Could policy be used to make it more fulfilling and rewarding? It could, but that would entail government thinking beyond job creation to how it might foster a gamut of economic activity.

We already have a government-initiated database of available jobs nationally: the Universal Job Match service. Government provides it, in competition with the private sector, because it is so crucial to have such a tool for work seekers.

Imagine a database of hours of availability that was also officially sanctioned. Anyone could list the hours they were available for ad hoc activity, what they were prepared to do and the terms on which they would trade.

Anyone wanting to purchase such services ranging from haircutting through hire of a bike to homecare or peak hours cover for a retailer could access the database.

It would show all the people ready to fulfil the need, each one costed and bookable with a few clicks. The site would enforce regulations and deduct tax.

The system could show anyone where their opportunities were locally and help them into trading in, perhaps, dozens of sectors that were appropriate to their circumstances.

It wouldn’t offer a job for life. But it could create immediate, diverse, sustainable, economic activity.

Anyone working this way would quickly build networks, experience and confidence. It could supplement or even replace a so called “McJob” for many.

The technology to do this is ready. Financing would not be a problem if governments threw their weight behind such a scheme.

Maybe the time is coming when we will have to fill in the hollows of the labour market in this way?

  • Wingham Rowan is the Director of the Beyond Jobs programme.
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