Values, attitudes and behaviours are continually evolving, representing an important driver of change in society and consequently the workplace. The other drivers of change all play a part in influencing and accelerating such social trends.
Technology drives societal change, not least through the role social media plays inside and outside of work. It arrived with the promise of democratising communication and in many ways has succeeded, making it one of the most significant changes in society in the last decade. Facebook launched only seventeen years ago and now has three billion users worldwide. Social media has transformed the ability of employees, customers and other stakeholders to communicate. Employers have quickly recognised its potential benefits, overhauling marketing and recruitment strategies and creating new types of work. Employees acting as influencers and brand ambassadors (subscription required) are increasingly critical in enabling employers to attract good candidates and new business. Employers have to balance this, however, against the need to control negative comment and manage their employees’ social media use. Throughout society, the dangers of uncontrolled (possibly uncontrollable) “fake news” have become apparent and employers are equally vulnerable to such risks. Nonetheless, in an environment full of mistrust and misinformation, businesses are regarded as the most trusted institution, with employers emerging as a bastion of reliability. Expectations on business to solve today’s challenges are increasing.
Demographics also impact our values, attitudes and behaviours. Tensions inevitably rise as differing views evolve more frequently into intolerance towards others’ viewpoints. Age is often a feature of these differences (see demographics – generations). An example of these value-based fault-lines in society was the Brexit referendum, in which a majority in each age group over 45 voted to leave while voters in each age group under 45 voted to remain. In the youngest voter group (age 18 to 24), nearly three times as many voted to remain as to leave (see globalisation – Brexit). Divergence can similarly be seen in the so-called “culture wars” between conservatives and liberals, where attitudes to issues such as abortion, LGBT+ rights and multi-culturalism collide.
Despite this, there is evidence that the British population is becoming more tolerant and more liberal, possibly as a result of generational changes. Attitudes to issues such as social security, immigration and Brexit are softening (see role of the state – state intervention; and globalisation – migration). People are becoming less tolerant of income inequality, harassment and discrimination (see demographics – gender). More and more people see sustainability as important, a factor that is reflected in the environmental, social and governance expectations placed on businesses (see sustainability – ESG).
To the extent that a divided society is now emerging, employers cannot ignore the prevailing conflicts and will need to understand them in order to attract, retain and motivate their people. A workforce that is diverse as to age, social background, ethnic origin and religion will need liberals and conservatives with different values to work together effectively. Misunderstanding and disagreements will unavoidably arise and employers will need to minimise discord through effective training and policies and deal fairly with disputes when they arise (see emerging themes – regulation and enforcement).
Concerns about the climate emergency are changing behaviours and employee expectations of business conduct (see sustainability – climate change emergency). Activities such as long-haul holidays, driving polluting vehicles and even possibly eating meat are likely to become more socially unacceptable in the years ahead.
Technological advances can rapidly change consumer behaviour which impacts the world of work. Online shopping and the demise of the High Street will result in fewer sales assistants but more driving and logistics work (at least until driverless vehicles and robots replace those jobs). The hospitality sector is also evolving. The app we used to buy food and drinks at pubs and restaurants whilst restrictions on face-to-face contact were in place will most likely gradually replace many waiting jobs. Online release of films through streaming networks will impact cinema jobs (see technology – jobs; emerging themes – more jobs/fewer jobs). Less commuting may mean city-centre shops and food outlets become less busy whereas those in residential neighbourhoods see more trade (see migration – domestic migration).
Covid-19 will accelerate the demand for more flexible working arrangements (see Covid-19 – agile working; emerging themes – flexibility). One trend in recent years has been towards working fewer hours (although hours increased for those working from home during the pandemic). Average working hours have declined throughout the G7 over the last fifty years and this trend will probably continue (see emergency themes – flexibility). Priorities are evolving, with much greater weight placed on work/life balance and the impact on health and productivity of long-hours. In some jurisdictions, laws are being introduced that oblige staff to switch off outside working hours. Increased caring responsibilities for the elderly will make work/life balance an issue for more people of working age.
Of course, if predictions of fewer jobs materialise (see technology – jobs; emerging themes – more jobs/fewer jobs), each person working less would provide one solution to the threat of mass unemployment.
As societal, consumer and employee expectations and values continue to shift, businesses need to work ever harder to match them. Trust will have a crucial role to play as organisations seek to build the necessary organisational capabilities for navigating the challenges ahead.
Evolving social trends will impact on the what and why of work.