In Brief | The Future of Work

We are already deep into the transition to the digital, globalised work economy. Current skills-sets, if not updated and adapted to changing times, will quickly become obsolete. This In Brief will introduce you to some recent resources on the future of work, including the future of work in the public sector.

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As the Centre for Future Work observes, changes in work organisation and employment relations are already having an impact on the working lives of Australians that is at least as important as the much-hyped development of robots and artificial intelligence.  The traditional ideal of a stable, permanent, full-time, paid job with normal entitlements (like sick and holiday leave, and superannuation entitlements) is no longer the norm.

The 2015 Intergenerational Report forecast that in 2055 the Australian population will hit 39.7 million, with those aged 65 and over more than doubling. It is predicted that a greater number of women and older Australians will be in paid work. This poses many questions and challenges for government, not least of which is changes to the way APS employees work. Future Proof, a 2016 Four Corners report contains a number of resources on its web page for further reading, including reports from PwC and CEDA on the topic.


The Australian Government undertakes research and analysis of employment trends across Australia to support government policy development. Employment related research in the areas of skill shortages, recruitment experiences, labour and skills needs and industry and employment trends is available on the Department of Jobs and Small Business website. One of their most recent publications ,Australian Jobs 2017, highlights Australia’s changing workforce and includes a snapshot infographic.

In their Employment Outlook to May 2022, the Department observes that “health care and social assistance has been the primary provider of new jobs in the Australian labour market since the 1990s, and this is expected to continue. Over the next five years, employment in this industry is projected to increase by 250,500 (or 16.1 per cent). Factors contributing to this strong projected growth include the full implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (scheduled for 2019–20), Australia’s ageing population, and increasing demand for child care and home-based care services”.

For other resources on the future of work see the September 2018 report from the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers Hope is Not a Strategy - our shared responsibility for the future of work and workers, The Conversation articles on future of work and digital disruption,  PWC's Future of Work site,The Productivity Commission's 2017 report Shifting the Dial, Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli's article for the Australian Economic Review Are Robots Taking Our Jobs?  and The Centre for Future Work research. For a global perspective go to the International Labour Organization's future of work site.

The OECD Future of Work initiative looks at how demographic change, globalisation and technological progress are affecting job quality and quantity, as well as labour market inclusiveness – and what this means for labour market, skills and social policy. This video addresses the penetration of technological change impacts on jobs that will be needed in the future, the tasks required, and how work is organised. Other recent You Tube videos on work futures can be found here, including a PwC video on the changing world of work in Australia and videos about the emergent gig economy, where digital platforms facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers for a fee and where jobs are broken down into short-term tasks or ‘gigs’, generally undertaken by self-employed independent contractors.

As part of the Future of Work initiative, the OECD also explores how governments can harness the capacity of their workforce to achieve policy goals and promote the principles of good governance. One of their most recent publications is a September 2017 document Skills for a High Performing Civil Service which proposes a framework to assess skills available and those required and identifies skills and innovations in public service management. The Mandarin’s report on this paper is here.

The March 2015 issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration (available to all IPAA members) includes a dialogue on the future of the public service workforce between Helen Dickinson and Helen Sullivan of the Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne and Graeme Head, New South Wales Public Service Commissioner. This dialogue relates to 2014 research by Helen Dickinson and Helen Sullivan published as Imagining the 21st Century public service workforce that explores changes that will need to occur in terms of the roles, skills and capabilities of future public servants and how change may be affected.

Eight lessons learned from the research were that: a different set of workforce roles is required; citizens are changing; generic skills will be as important as technical skills; ethics and values are changing; emotional labour will be key; austerity is inhibiting the emergence of new roles; distributed and dispersed leadership is required; and many professions are coming to the same conclusions but tackling the issue separately.

Today’s public service workplaces include a mix of permanent and contract public servants, sub-contractors and casual employees – all working side by side, often moving into and out of the public service. In this August 2016 speech, IPAA National President and University of Western Sydney Chancellor, Professor Shergold,  imagines a public sector workforce that has “substantive involvement of business and community organisations and … the active participation of individual citizens in the creation of public value.”

Recommendations from Professor Shergold’s 2015 report to government Learning from Failure propose that people should be enabled to move in and out of the public service more easily to “increase cross-sectoral collaboration in designing and delivering public policy, facilitate better partnerships and broaden the range of experiences that the public sector can call upon. Dept of Industry, Innovation and Science Secretary, Dr Heather Smith, reiterated the importance of workforce mobility in her speech to IPAA’s Doing Policy Differently event on 22 March 2018. The Canberra Times,  The Mandarin and PS News reported on her remarks.On 19 April, the Mandarin also carried a response to Heather's speech by Carmel McGregor, which continues the conversation about how fit for purpose the public service is.

The Independent Review of the APS is delving deeply into the capability, culture and operating model of the APS. One of its priorities is to invest in capability and talent development -supporting all staff to be ‘professional public servants’ in the 21st century. As part of the Review the Boston Consulting Group prepared a scenario report on megatrends to 2030 including a survey of public servants  on their perceptions of changing work. Responses were summarised as:

  • workforce shifting to new skillsets
  • more demand for flexible working
  • increasingly multi-generational workforces
  • more collaborative, iterative work approaches
  • adoption of human-centred design; and
  • shift from vertical product siloes to horizontal platforms.

The 21st Century Public Service report by British-based authors Catherine Needham and Catherine Mangan considers how the public service workforce is changing, and what further changes are needed to develop the effectiveness of public servants. The report sees the future public servant as an entrpreneur, taking on a variety of roles who engages with citizens; has generic as well as technical skills; builds a fluid career; combines an ethos of publicness with an understanding of commerciality; is rethinking public services to enable them to survive an era of "perma-austerity"; needs organisations which are fluid and supportive rather than siloed and controlling;  rejects heroic leadership in favour of distributed and collaborative models of learning; is rooted in a locality which frames a sense of loyalty and identity; and  reflects on practice and learns from that of others.

The future of work cannot be divorced from thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. If you would like to delve deeper into the interesection between the two topics, both the International Labour Organization and the Royal Society have 2018 literature reviews on their sites. In May 2019 Deloitte launched a new paper The Path to Prosperity: Why the Future of Work is Human which somewhat allays the sentiment that robots will take future jobs. More than 80% of jobs created between now and 2030 will be for knowledge workers, and two-thirds will be strongly reliant on soft skills, the report says.

See our In Brief Artificial Intelligence in the Public Sector for applications of AI in the public sector. More broadly, the 2017 Boyer Lectures by Professor Genevieve Bell focus on what it is to be human, and Australian, in a digital world.

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