The Future of Work – where are the unions?

I spent yesterday at the Future of Work Consortium, listening to a range of excellent speakers talking about the future of work and talent. 

As the day drew to an end, something stuck me.  In a room full of senior HR and business people, talking all day about work, talent and organisations, not once to my recollection did anyone mention trade unions.  This would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.   It was simply not on anyone’s agenda.  Businesses from all over the globe took their people and talent related challenges to discuss with other senior professionals, and the collective agenda simply did not exist. 

There are lots of predictions about the future of work and the trends we will all have to face over the next few decades; globalisation, the war for talent in the context of increasing skills shortages, the hollowing out of work, ever changing and improving technology and demographic changes.   Then there is the big challenge of Generations Y and Z, and the influence of the social world on work.  I said in a blog a while ago that it remains to be seen whether Gen Y will change for the workplace, or whether the workplace will change for Gen Y.  Whilst there are often sweeping generalisations made about Gen Y, I am believing increasingly that it will be the latter. 

So where do the trade unions fit in the future of work?  Trade union membership and collective bargaining has been in decline now since the late 1970s.  The vast majority of the 6m or so members that are left are in the public sector. Only 10% of those aged between 16-24 are trade union members today. 

I’m struggling to see the current school aged children, with their developed social networks and desire for less bureaucratic structures (accepting a generalisation) queuing up to join a trade union.  Are they going to want to, for example, see their pay determined by a collective negotiation process?  Or are they going to want to see it determined individually, with reference to their own effort (and probably some sort of gameification if what I read is correct).

If future of work predictions hold true, over the next ten years we will see the hollowing out of work.  There will be over demand for very high skill workers, and a surplus of low skilled workers.  What can be outsourced or taken over by technology will be, so there will be a big gap in the middle.  The role of the middle manager is over, apparently.  If this comes to pass, who will be the future members of the unions, other than maybe these low skilled workers, who will be struggling for jobs?  As we work longer, their traditional membership base will probably continue – but this won’t last for ever. 

I can’t help but think trade unions have got to find a way of making themselves relevant to Gen Y and Z, or face further decline.  I’d love to hear about any trade unions doing just this.

PS, if you haven’t read ‘The Shift, the Future of Work is Already Here’ by Lynda Gratton, then I recommend downloading a copy.