The wider labour force

In this section

The labour market of the future

Several key drivers of change are expected to affect the wider labour market in the coming decades: technological advances, increasing globalisation, demographic and societal change and moves towards a low-carbon, environmentally sustainable economy. These could have a fundamental impact on the health and social care workforce of the future leading to:

  • increasing use of social networks, remote working  and virtual teams
  • greater demand for highly educated workers able to solve complex problems (interactional jobs)
  • more part-time/temporary jobs, with organisations bringing in specialists for short-term projects
  • increasing migration for work and availability of low-cost staff throughout the world 
  • people working for longer as final salary pensions end and the boundaries between employment and retirement blur
  • continued youth unemployment.

Changing patterns of work

Employment patterns and attitudes across the labour force as a whole have changed in recent decades. The proportion of women in the workforce has risen, while the proportion of men and younger people in work has fallen. Increasing numbers of people now work part-time, and we expect this will shift further towards flexible, part-time and home working.

The percentage of the population in work has changed little over the past 40 years, fluctuating between 74 and 78 per cent (1).

Employment rates (people aged 16-64) by gender

Source: Office for National Statistics (2011). Report. Social Trends 41 Labour Market

In contrast, the composition of the workforce has altered considerably. Between 1971 and 2011, the employment rate for women rose 13 per cent, while the employment rate for men fell by 16 per cent and more people work part-time, as indicated by the overall hours worked per person, which has reduced (1). In terms of age, 25 per cent fewer 16-17 years olds are in work compared to 20 years ago, while the proportion of 50 to 64-year-olds working has increased by 8.7 per cent (1,2).

Total and average weekly hours worked in the UK


Source: Office for National Statistics (2011). Report. Social Trends 41 Labour Market

Generations X and Y (those born in the 1980s and 1990s respectively) seem to have a different approach to work. Research carried out by Ipsos MORI indicates they are more likely to value further education and training, as shown by the sharp increase in students obtaining an undergraduate degree, opportunities to network, and are happy to work for a number of organisations, in order to progress (3).

These trends are likely to continue in the longer term as men and women seek a different work-life balance through part-time or flexible jobs; with greater use of technology and the ability to work remotely blurring the boundaries between office and home (4,5).

Trends in higher education

Proportion of people entering higher education

The proportion of young people entering higher education has risen dramatically in the past 20 years.

A concerted political effort to widen participation has contributed to a step change in the numbers entering higher education in England, particularly since the mid-1990s. The number of students obtaining a first degree rose sharply from 77,163 in 1990 to 275,345 in 2004 as former polytechnics were brought into the university sector (6).

There has also been a reduction in inequality one in five young people from disadvantaged backgrounds went on to higher education in 2009 compared to one in eight in the mid-1990s (7). The proportion of women obtaining first degrees has more than doubled over the past 50 years, from 25 per cent in 1960 to 57 per cent in 2010/11 (6,8)

Number of students obtaining an undergraduate degree in the United Kingdom (1920-2004)


Source: House of Commons Library (2007). Briefing Paper. Education: Historical statistics (1920-2004)

The graph below shows a 10 per cent increase in educational attainment among employed workers in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries between 1995 and 2010. This is set to continue as demand for highly skilled, specialised workers increases (9). Universities are likely to respond by reshaping programmes to meet employers’ needs more closely (10).

Educational attainment of employed workers in OECD countries


Source: McKinsey Global Institute (March 2012). Report summary. Help wanted: The future of work in advanced economies

Applications to higher education

In the next 10 to 20 years, applications to higher education are likely to remain level or fall slightly in response to restrictions in funded places, higher tuition fees and an expected 11 per cent decrease in the number of 18 year olds over the next decade. However, as indicated earlier, younger people seem to place a high value on education and training and may not be deterred by the prospects of increased debt.

These trends could have a significant impact on the quality and quantity of the future workforce if it results in fewer young people, particularly women, choosing to enter higher education. Maternal attainment is strongly associated with educational achievement within families, female participation in the labour market and wider economic growth (11).

Next page: Overview of the health and social care workforce >


  1. Office for National Statistics (2011). Report. Social Trends 41 Labour Market
  2. Office for National Statistics (2009). Report. Social Trends 39 Labour Market
  3. Ipsos MORI (2007). Factsheet. Generation Y research: employee relationship management
  4. Office for National Statistics (2005). Article. Home-based working using communication technologies
  5. European Labour Force Survey (2011). Labour force survey. Around 8.5 million part-time workers in the EU27 wished to work more hours
  6. House of Commons Library (2007). Briefing Paper. Education: Historical statistics (1920-2004)
  7. Higher Education Funding Council for England (2010). Report. Trends in young participation in higher education: core results for England
  8. Higher Education Statistics Agency (2012). Statistical Bulletin. Student enrolments on HE courses by level of study, subject are and mode of study 2006/07 to 2012/11
  9. PricewaterhouseCoopers (2007). Report. Managing Tomorrow’s People: The future of work to 2020
  10. Henley Business School. Website. BA Accounting and Business
  11. Jackson LW (2009). Discussion paper. Educate the Women and You Change the World: Investing in the education of women is the best investment in a country’s growth and development. The Forum on Public Policy Summer 2009