Volunteers in a Changing World

There was a news report on the BBC website concerning the use of unpaid volunteers in mainly the Police service. Obviously this is set against the background of public spending cutbacks and the impact this is having and going to have in the future on Policing. Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34697149

However perhaps the whole concept of volunteering needs to be looked at in a totally different light, rather than ‘cost cutting’ and more an essential way of building social cohesion at a time when the “world of work” is undergoing a radical transformation.

The Broad Changes

If there is one glaring example of an industry that has fought tooth and nail to avoid facing its changed circumstances it is that of Newspapers. The extraordinary thing about it was not that it was just the ‘unions’ that opposed journalists setting their own pages directly, thus reducing production costs but also the management/owners who in their turn refused to accept that in the age of the Internet, their old commercial business model based upon advertising revenue was bust too.

But right across every type of industry, this pattern of ‘automation’ leading to job losses has been going on for quite a long time and it will not abate anytime soon. The way changes take place vary such as the availability of reasonably priced PCs being given to mangers and workers led to the end of the typing pool and most secretarial jobs also wiping out a whole class of workers over just a few years.

People long ago accepted that increasingly robots would takeover the production lines in the manufacturing industries but what they now need to grasp is that technology is capable of a lot more things that will impact jobs previously thought of as safe from such intrusions ! Any task that consists of researching previous case histories as in the practice of Law, to discover arguments that could be used in another case today could, after suitable organisation of the data, be done automatically.

This last example is possible and most certainly will happen but it is not simple or easy. However here an interesting aside: Some years ago I was involved with looking at “knowledge management systems” and in the process discovered that the most valuable person on the team was not a programmer but a former librarian who knew how to organise information. The point that I’m making here is that some skills are transferable to a new environment but many are not. I would also make the point that the ‘lost jobs’ will not just be those normally done by the poorly educated and skilled, it will often impact what were formally quite skilled jobs and workers too.

Here is another interesting ‘take’ on the future jobs market by James Kirkup in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/technology-topics/11975540/The-gig-economy-is-coming.-Politics-isnt-ready.html

Brave New World

At coming up for 70, I do not come from a computer literate generation but took 3 years out in my 40’s to become so and start a new career in IT. My main interest at outset was computer graphics and imaging but it was a world of DOS then so the remarkable changes I have seen in this area over the past 25 years or so are quite astonishing to me. In the creative spheres, music, video, photography, animation and engineering, the potential of relatively very affordable hardware combined with the right kind of software means that a single person with an original idea can generate a world of commercial opportunity from their own home.

It is important to grasp the significance of this particularly if over the next decade, 3D printing and production become more sophisticated, the world of the tailor made product will mean that a lot of manufacturing is devolved away from large factories. I am sure that there will continue to be large scale production facilities, one can hardly image computer chip fabrication becoming a cottage industry any time soon and there will be many other such examples from car, aircraft manufacturing through to ship building but in every case, automation will squeeze out labour where it can. The world of work will have changed forever with the majority of people have “in work” and “out of work” phases in their lives rather than our current idea of “having a full time job”.

There will be groups of skilled often ‘people facing’ workers who will have a full employment pattern such as doctors, nurses, police etc who will be expected to be highly skilled and very well paid but in order for this to happen, they will need to be supported by an army of unpaid volunteers. Not even the Civil Service will be able to escape this pattern, they too along with other public sectors will see far fewer full time jobs and lots of support from unpaid volunteers required.

The Importance of Volunteering

Whilst the UK economy has been good at generating new jobs post the financial crisis, many of these have been low paid ones and this pattern is likely to continue into the near future as more and more jobs become “automated” in one way or another, we need to break this pattern if we want to produce a more dynamic and wealth creating economy. In a sense and I believe it viable, we can shrink the State, cut public spending and allow real wages to grow for those in work by simply using “free labour” to maintain services to the population at large. Above I put in a link for an article by James Kirkup where he is focusing on self employment using services such as Uber but in reality I see this type of employment as being highly suspect and a bit like being at a gambling Casino, “The House always wins”, the only real winner will be companies such as Uber and its owners, the “employees” who provide the service will get relatively little out of it in the end.

However the point is that the world of work is likely to be highly diverse and as a society we need to start thinking about it in a different way starting with both the tax and the benefits system, also we may have to revisit the idea an electronic ID as a tool to collect the one and distribute the other in a seamless way. How employment and commerce will develop is hard to predict and even harder to place a time frame upon but broad principles can be established and systems put in place to deal with the likely shape of work to come and from this, how unpaid volunteers will fit in. The reality of volunteering is that it will encourage social cohesion in society whilst also ensuring that individuals doing the work are acknowledged by society as a whole as valuable and making a positive contribution.

Broad Brush

The following is not intended as a thoroughly detailed costed and thought out proposal, it is meant to serve as a thought piece to map out and explore the issues that we will face on this ‘new frontier’.

Let us suppose that only 50% of the available workforce has a ‘proper’ salaried full time job and that the other 50% are either in training, self employment, in and out of any regular paid work/contracts or incapable of working for whatever reason. Imagine that with only few exceptions, all social security benefits including the old age pension were abolished and replaced with a standard basic income payable to all. On top of that basic level would be an “enhanced payment” for those who commit to and perform reliably a volunteer activity on a regular basis, like 16 hours per week.

The next segment might be how to deal with people who are in or out of paying work. There would be a good reason to base all their payments on electronic transfers with no cash payments allowed. Whilst they were working a standard “tax” of say 10% would be deducted at source and remitted directly to the government their income would always be “known” and the minimum that they would get every week is the same as the standard “wage” paid to everybody in the Country. Although it would appear that they are on a “flat rate tax”, they are not, they are on flat rate deduction which would mean that they never owed tax or were owed a rebate. Whether 10% would be the correct level of deduction, I don’t really know but there would be a suitable figure of that sort of level.

Obviously there would need to be an interim stage when an individual worker transitioned to becoming a small business that employs other people however my thinking is really directed at the lower levels of work and occupations because that is where the real pressure lies today and tomorrow. Society would still have its SMEs and large companies the latter employing increasingly fewer but higher paid skilled workers.

The Blair government fooled around with a highly flawed proposal for Identity Cards, there will need to be such a thing but in a more sophisticated form so that possibly National Insurance numbers get replaced by a ‘mobile telephone number for life’ but there would need to be a highly integrated ID and payments system to make it all work properly. Another need would be a publicly available “Training for Life” programme so that people have the opportunity to change their circumstances and careers by their own learning efforts.

However against such a background, volunteers could take over a whole raft of support activities that could improve society as a whole whilst also them being seen to making a contribution to society by their efforts in society.

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