History-of-work-Wazoku

A brief history of work, innovation and skills in the UK

Louise Leone Blog

There’s no question the world of work has evolved over time. Advances in mechanisation, mass production and, more recently, technology have shaped where and how we work, as well as what we produce. The need for people and organisations to innovate has always been there but what’s much harder to comprehend, and therefore navigate, is the rapid pace of change we’re experiencing, on a scale we’ve never seen before.

Driven by advancing technologies, accelerating connectivity, and changing attitudes towards employment, organisations are operating in a dynamic environment – one where fast-growing start-ups are disrupting traditional business models and AI is replacing human labour. Most organisations today understand the importance of innovation but there was a time when it was a dirty word.


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According to Professor Benoit Godin, if you were innovative in the 17th century, you risked having your ears cut off! Once hailed as an insult, ‘innovation’ was a pejorative term and its practice was not encouraged during the deeply religious atmosphere of the time. Promoting change of any kind was seen as a threat to the established order.

Couple this with the fact that we once had generational occupations, from which the family name would derive, and it’s easy to see why conformity was encouraged. Simply having a surname such as Tailor, Blacksmith or Potter would indicate the family trade, with job security being created by passing skills and expertise down through the generations.

Fast-forward to the present day and we’ve moved well beyond the concept of a ‘job for life’ to a place where careers are positively fluid. We’ve seen the rise of the gig-economy. We’ve seen the emergence of new job titles such as Head of Innovation. And we’ll soon see AI take a seat on the board of trustees.

But how did we get here? Here’s a brief history of UK work, innovation and skills…

Late 19th Century and wartime


  • 1850s and 1860s – The formation of national trade unions

    Skilled craftsmen formed national trade unions. However, unskilled workers did not become organised until the late 1880s.

  • 1880s and 1890s – Efforts to raise productivity

    A growing concern about the standard of Britain’s labour force, particularly when compared with Germany and the other industrial nations, led to a rise in an emphasis on training to increase productivity and competitiveness.

  • 1914 to 1918 – Fast-track training schemes to produce munitions

    The First World War demanded rapid production of munitions, so the Ministry of Munitions devised training schemes aimed at producing competent machine operators in under three months. The emphasis shifted to skill training for (mainly) disabled ex-servicemen, to enable them to gain both employment and trade union membership.

  • 1925 – Rebuilding after the First World War

    The Interrupted Apprenticeship Scheme was established to address the skills shortage and mass unemployment after the First World War. As well as regular apprenticeships, training schemes were created to prepare women and girls for domestic employment. It was unusual at this time for married women to work.

  • 1945 – Producing skilled workers to rebuild after the war

    At the end of the Second World War, courses were again adapted to the needs of post-war reconstruction to provide training for the building industry. The experience of the war stimulated interest in formal training and skills development.

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A new era of work and technological change


  • 1950s – Women entering the world of work

    In the 1950s and 1960s it became more common for married women to work – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work, relieving them of time-consuming housework. At the same time the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.

  • 1970s – High inflation and unemployment

    Unemployment rose rapidly from the mid-70s and various schemes were developed to train young people and to reduce unemployment. In 1978, the Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) was established to offer unemployed school leavers work experience, training and work preparation courses.

  • 1972 – School leaving age rises to 16

    School leaving age in England and Wales was raised from 15 to 16, following preparations that started in 1964.

  • 1980s – Mobile phones, video recorders and the emergence of home computers

    As well as being typical for both parents to be in work, this was a time of technological growth and advancement. This shift led to increased popularity of instructor-led classroom training in the workplace, as well as the use of training videos, PowerPoint presentations and computer-based training methods.

  • 1980-1982 – Recession and de-industrialisation

    Britain was gripped by recession and unemployment, reaching a peak in 1986, and the economy was changed by de-industrialisation. Traditional industries such as coal mining, textiles and shipbuilding declined rapidly. Whereas, service industries, such as tourism, education, retail and finance grew rapidly and this sector became the main source of employment.

  • 1990 – Britain is gripped by a second recession in a decade

    Unfortunately, another recession began in 1990 and unemployment rose again. However, unemployment began to fall again in 1993 and it continued to fall till the end of the century.

  • 1990s – The rise of the gap year

    This decade saw the rise of the gap year – students delaying entry into formal higher education in preference for taking a year out to work and travel. This signalled a shift in people wanting more out of life, rather than going straight into work or study.

  • 1998 – End of an era for university students: student grants

    1998 marks the end of student grants and introduction of the student loan scheme.

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The digital revolution


  • 2002 – The social network

    By this time, social media was rapidly growing with the launch of LinkedIn and MySpace in 2003, and Facebook in 2004. This opened up new possibilities for online social learning.

  • 2003 – Skills strategy part one

    In 2003, the Government issued its skills strategy White Paper with the aims of ensuring that employers had the skills to support the success of their business, and that employees had the necessary skills to be both employable and personally fulfilled. The White Paper spoke of building a new skills alliance where every employer, employee and citizen played their part, by integrating what already existed and focusing it more effectively.

  • 2006 – Skills strategy part two

    This was followed by the Leitch Review of Skills published in 2006. It established targets to boost apprenticeships to 500,000 a year by 2020, to address low skills in the UK. The aim was to get to a position where 95% of adults had achieved a Level 2 qualification, encouraging employers to voluntarily commit to a new ‘pledge’ to train all eligible employees up to Level 2.

  • 2006/07 – Launch of Twitter and the Apple iPhone

    Twitter, a new online news and social networking platform, was launched in 2006, enabling people to post and share 140-character messages. Then in 2007, Apple launched the iPhone, which is when the use of smart phones really took off.

  • 2008 – Global financial crisis

    It began with a credit crunch at the end of 2007 and ended up becoming a global recession, with blame pointed at sub-prime lending in the housing market. This results in high levels of unemployment by 2009.

  • 2010 – Another end of an era for university students: changes to tuition fees

    A vote in Parliament at the end of 2010 agreed plans to enable universities to charge a graduate contribution of up to £9,000 a year from 2012/2013. However, the rise in tuition fees did nothing to deter students from applying to study.

  • Mid-2010s – The rise of the ‘always-on’ workplace

    An increase in accessible technology and smartphone usage led to an emergence of the always-on workplace. Arguably bringing with it several benefits and risks, it certainly signalled an intensification of work that hadn’t been seen before.

  • 2014 – Exponential growth of digital connectivity

    By the end of 2014, the number of mobile devices and connections surpassed the number of people on the planet, making it the fastest growing technological innovation so far.

  • 2015 – The rise of the gig economy

    The emergence of companies such as Uber and Deliveroo helped to create the gig economy. The connected work market, where people buy and sell services online, has grown out of a combination of a rise in professional freelancing/networking platforms and a desire to work more flexibly.

  • 2016 – The need for life-long learners

    With an ageing population, advancing technologies and an increasing need for higher-level skills, it’s not surprising that the need for life-long learners is increasing as the world of work is transforming.

  • 2018 – The age of data and analytics

    The rise of a more data-driven business model that focuses and relies on new data streams, technologies, systems and human analysis to inform decisions.

  • 2020 – THE FUTURE OF WORK ?

    There’s no denying that change is constant but what’s most striking, in recent years, is the speed of change. Advancements in digital technology, including in the fields of AI and robotics, are occurring at an unprecedented rate. The future of work will continue to be disruptive and dynamic – but how can organisations respond? What skills will be needed for the future of work? And is the responsibility to innovate now a job requirement for all?

The Future of Work is here! How can you prepare for change, disruption and the need for innovation? Read our latest report to find out.

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