The biggest societal changes and how they will impact on social work

Finola Farrant, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Arden University Describes how recent paradigm shifts in society – and those yet to come – will affect the world of social work.

22/11/21

The biggest societal changes and how they will impact on social work

‘There is big change happening’; a phrase that you will inevitably hear throughout your lifetime as society changes, rings truer now than ever before. We are seeing shifts occurring on a macro-level at an unprecedented rate, impacting our everyday lives to ultimately transform the future.

While we are living through a pivotal time after a global pandemic, the notion that society evolves and changes throughout time is nothing new. In the past two decades alone, there have been some remarkable feats that have inevitably changed the way we live and how society works.

Fifty years ago, for example, less than half (36%) of the world's population lived in urban areas, according to The World Bank; in 2020, it was estimated that around 56% of the population lived in a city – a staggering increase which has risen throughout the years.

When we look at the wider impact this has had on society, however, this shift has contributed towards many things: poor air and water quality, insufficient water availability, high energy consumption and even wealth distribution and labour market patterns. This in turn impacts each individual: their livelihood, the opportunities they are presented with or the struggles they face.

The shift in where much of the population lives, therefore, massively affects humanity and it is these societal changes that impact us all, including how social work develops in the sector. If we can look at how the world is changing now, we can proactively know what concerns and problems are around the corner and prepare those who work in social care to be prepared to deal with them. So, what shifts are we seeing?

The development of technology
Technology affects the way individuals communicate, learn, and think, and has had – and will continue to have – an influence on the way society works. This will have an effect on a couple of different aspects in the sector.

Firstly, technology has changed how we learn and work – it has made it, in some ways, more interactive, collaborative and gives more people better access to resources. This will hopefully give more people from different backgrounds access to education which in turn should mean a more diverse and skilled workforce, including across social services. Nonetheless, digital poverty, as well as distinct demongraphic differences in engagement with technology, remains a concern and can exacerbate both access and engagement with services.

As it has changed communication and interaction, we are also seeing social change occurring at a different pace – with interaction happening on a more global scale. Social media has brought to light new issues that the next generation wants to solve, and things are moving at a faster speed, and we are now looking beyond the loudest voice in the room. This means more people are being exposed to a variety of voices with different experiences and opinions. Not only will this influence the issues we will need to solve in society, but it will also impact how the next generation will be taught.

In terms of teaching students in social sciences for the jobs of the future, there are two things education institutions need to be aware of which is influenced by the uptick in technology: firstly, as mentioned above, courses need to prepare and educate students pushing for more inclusivity and information; secondly, technology will be replacing some current jobs and the demand for other roles will increase. Notably, the skills required within social work such as interpersonal and advocacy skills, critical reflection and resilience will remain essential in the future.

The fourth industrial revolution will be creating jobs that currently don’t exist. Whilst we don’t entirely know what these jobs look like, we know that they will demand soft skills. More emphasis will be put on good communication skills, interpersonal skills and digital skills. Those working in the care sector will need to be able to provide support beyond face to face – and technology will assist with this, meaning upskilling to be comfortable with digital mediums is vital.

Health inequality
In its Health at a Glance report (https://www.bmj.com/content/375/bmj.n2750), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said preliminary data showed that life expectancy in 2020 fell in 24 of 30 OECD countries.

This has brought to our attention the impact of health inequalities. Defined as unfair and avoidable differences in health across the population, health inequalities occur between different groups within society.

According to the NHS (https://www.england.nhs.uk/ltphimenu/definitions-for-health-inequalities/), the population groups of the people/communities that are most vulnerable to health inequality fall into the following:

- Socio-economic status and deprivation: e.g., unemployed, low income, people living in deprived areas (e.g., poor housing, poor education and/or unemployment).
- Protected characteristics: e.g., age, sex, race, sexual orientation, disability
- Vulnerable groups of society, or ‘inclusion health’ groups: e.g., vulnerable. migrants; Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities; rough sleepers and homeless people; and sex workers
- Geography: e.g., urban, rural.

Evidence says that people living in our most deprived areas face the worse health inequalities in relation to health access, experiences and outcomes and the pandemic outlined this. We saw higher numbers of infections and deaths from COVID-19 among ethnic minorities, immigrants, people living in socioeconomically deprived areas, those working in professions like social care, and those who require care in their own homes or a care home.

Recovering from this will be something the next generation will undoubtedly need to prepare for; what were the lessons learnt and how can we close the disparity? Technology, as mentioned above, has certainly helped close the gap by giving people access to online platforms at a pace that was unavailable beforehand, but there are generational differences, as well as financial differences, that are still yet to be handled before we see further impact.

Climate change
A current ‘buzzword’ that comes with heavy implications is climate change. Human health, agriculture and food security, water supply, transportation, energy, ecosystems, are expected to become increasingly disruptive throughout this century and beyond.

As climate change takes its toll on Earth’s physical planet, it will also cause social, economic, and political chaos as refugees flee areas that can no longer sustain them. We will most likely witness society becoming more polarised due to the impacts of climate change. With some areas losing natural resources, such as drinking water, and conditions becoming too hot and dry, or too cold and wet, livelihoods will be threatened and citizens will need to be displaced, causing a rise in people seeking asylum. Worsened living conditions will also hamper return for those who have already been displaced. A rise in floods and increased pollution will also cause public health concerns.

Research has shown that the relationship between social inequality is characterised by a vicious cycle, whereby initial inequality makes disadvantaged groups suffer disproportionate loss of their income and assets, resulting in greater, subsequent inequality.

This divide between the rich and poor will deepen and the related inequality, including access to services, will have an impact on social work. It will also influence the changes we will see people advocating for in the future: will particular policies be called out for change, and will we see a shift in how the next generation want to approach certain situations? Most likely.

The human costs of such inequality will be devastating, with women and girls projected to suffer the most. In order to manage this, students will need to be taught of the potential, devastating impact climate change will have on society and how this will shape the social workof the future.

Paint on Face

Finola Farrant is Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Arden University. To find out more, visit: https://arden.ac.uk/

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