We must address the role of life-long learning in the future of work

Fancy a pizza? Need to get home late after the work Christmas party? Most of us think nothing about turning to our phone, and opening one of those sharing economy apps that Liz Truss has referred to on Twitter as the ‘staples of my life’.

This week’s Deliveroo High Court decision, however – in which a previous ruling was upheld that its riders are self employed rather than workers or employees – reminds us of some of the big questions around the future of work.

Within self-employment, the ‘gig economy’ is a small but growing part of daily life. Peer-to-peer companies like Uber, Deliveroo, and TaskRabbit have become everyday solutions, offering cheap and reliable goods and services, quickly.

The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimated earlier this year that 4.4 per cent of the population of Great Britain, or 2.8 million people, participated in this form of work over the past twelve months. Working this way offers many people more freedom, a better work-life balance, and greater flexibility. Businesses – and small businesses, in particular – can benefit from a more mobile and flexible pool of readily accessible labour. These benefits are also passed on to consumers, who enjoy increased choice, better experiences, and decreased expense.

New entrants to the market drive up standards and drive down costs, as innovation meets demand and drives growth. Meanwhile, more traditional business models are forced to update, becoming disrupted and newly open to competition, as they lose monopolistic control. There is much to be celebrated, here.

However, the gig economy is often painted by its critics as a framework that systematically exploits vulnerable low-skilled workers, and it is important to acknowledge that this can sometimes happen. But reforms and protections, including the banning of exclusive zero-hour contracts, have, thankfully, decreased instances of genuinely exploitative practices. These practices would be supported by few people with a true interest in the maximisation of freedom: I certainly don’t support them, and neither does the party I represent.

Moreover, common fears about economic insecurity and financial hardship related to participating in the gig economy often lack evidence. In a recent paper by Public First, for instance, it was reported that Deliveroo riders ‘can typically earn more than they would in the alternative work available to them’. And, while the CIPD’s 2017 report To gig or not to gig?’ emphasises that ‘49 per cent of gig economy participants report they are living comfortably or doing alright, in contrast to 56 per cent of other workers’, the percentage of gig economy participants who self-report as fitting in the most comfortable bracket (‘living comfortably’) is very slightly higher (17 per cent) than the percentage of other workers who do so (16 per cent).

Rather, the key sticking points in this debate focus on questions around employment status – as pointed up by the High Court case this week – and the place for further regulation.

My new FREER paper, out today, examines these questions in detail, and proposes sensible freedom-enhancing ways to address them. Moreover, it also emphasises the way in which it is not only the self employed who value and can greatly benefit from increased flexibility in their work. According to a recent YouGov survey, only six per cent of people now work a ‘normal 9-5 week’, and Timewise reported earlier this year that 87 per cent of employees want to work flexibly.

In this dynamic age, however, individuals must keep up to date with the new skills necessary to contribute and achieve fulfilment across a longer working life span. The future of work is unbreakably tied to learning and skills. Yet the frameworks of our education system have remained largely unchanged since the industrial revolution. It is time for a fundamental debate on the prevailing notion that, for most people, education finishes in their late teens or early adulthood.

My paper, therefore, also engages with the ‘lifelong learning’ discussion. The recent serious fall in the number of part-time and mature students should be of concern to us all. We must accept that the learner of the future will not be an 18-21-year-old on a full-time three-year university course, and recognise the benefits and challenges that this change will bring. This will be key, not least, for the country to meet the skills challenges ahead. Of equal importance, our current approach underplays the vast intrinsic value of good education to everyone, of any age.

We urgently need to reassess the critical yet complex roles that both work and education play in our society. My paper, which is the first of a FREER stream focused on the future of work, aims to kickstart an essential conversation.

This article first appeared on ConservativeHome