On the face of it you might think that the future is full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns over low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is an increasingly noisy debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet none of these currents are likely to reverse a pattern of long-term decline. Membership peaked at over 13 million in 1979 and has fallen to 6.8 million — still a large number, of course, but it represents under a quarter of employees. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. In the private sector membership falls to 14 per cent, falling to around 10% in regions like London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are union members.

These snap-shots may sound gloomy but in truth they fail to convey the size of the challenge coming down the track. To see why just consider the generational trends and the likely long-term impact of the fall in the tendency of those in their twenties and thirties to join unions. Within any given cohort union membership rates rise as workers get older but the base from which this takes place is falling over time as fewer young people sign up. If, for instance, we look at those born in the late 1960s we see that when they reached their mid-to-late twenties almost 30 per cent of them were in unions. Fast forward 20 years and we see that when those born in the late 1980s reached the same age only 20 per cent of them were in membership. Millennials aren’t signing up.

What, then, do these trends suggest might happen by, say, 2030? By looking at today’s figures and projecting forward we would anticipate a further substantive decline in membership rates from 1 in 4 working-age employees today to 1 in 5 by 2030. And if we look at the first cohort of millennials — those born in the early 1980s — we project that by 2030 their membership rate will have only reached 26 per cent (by comparison when the first baby boomers were the same age, 40 per cent were members). Of course, like all projections to 2030 this will be wide of the mark. It could be pessimistic — if new union drives to recruit younger workers prove successful — but it’s worth emphasising that unless union membership rises with age to the same extent as it has in the past then our projection will be on the optimistic side.

There are, of course, a wide range of factors underlying these trends. The slow-burn of industrial restructuring, the rise of smaller employers and self-employment, increasingly fissured workplaces (due to contracting out and sub-contracting), anti-union legislation, deep cuts public service spending — they all take their toll. So too do changes in social attitudes: millennials are far less supportive of collective welfare institutions than previous generations. It may well be that this perspective rubs off on their views of unions too.

But to lay the blame purely at the door of these structural factors is to excuse too much. We also need to consider how unions have responded to these challenges and the failure of other institutions to emerge.

In doing so we take a balanced perspective and avoid the clichéd denunciations of the failure of all unions which are all too common. There is plenty of good work to applaud. Among the major unions we can see that the likes of Usdaw are remarkably successful in replenishing their membership despite the huge churn among their workforce (they need to recruit one-sixth of their membership every year just to stand still); Unison have been prominent in the campaign against “wage-theft” in the care sector; GMB has led the way in seeking to clarify the legal rights of Uber drivers; and Unite has successfully championed Sports Direct workers. All contain activists with new ideas and energy.

Some smaller unions are also seeking to reinvent, or indeed invent, themselves. Community has recently declared its ambition to become the union for the self-employed in the UK, a sector where Bectu and the Musicians’ Union have already been active. And there is the occasional new entrant too: the tiny Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, only formed in 2012, recently launched a high-profile case against four London based courier firms accusing them of misclassifying their workers as self-employed.

These points of light all give cause for hope, but they are the exceptions. Most are small-scale and none of them are anything like commensurate with the scale of the challenge. Relying on largely traditional models of operation, in largely traditional sectors, is going to leave the union movement ever less relevant to a new generation of workers.

The UK labour-movement is hardly alone in this regard. Their US counterparts face an even more acute problem (membership has fallen to just 10 per cent) which is perhaps one reason why there is a far more vibrant and open debate about what 21st century pro-labour institutions should look like. It’s a debate that spans unions, grass-roots civic organisations, big charitable foundations and progressive tech-sector business leaders. And it’s more than idle talk and interesting think-tank seminars: over the last few years far greater progress has been made on issues like low-pay across American states and cities then we’ve seen in a generation.

From a UK perspective, there is a striking willingness among at least some US union leaders to experiment. They are very upfront about the fact that they don’t know what the organisational models of the future look like but — whatever they are — they want to discover them. It’s hard to imagine a major UK union leader speaking with a similar sense of urgency as the likes of David Rolf, Vice President of SEIU and a founder of the Fight for $15. His message of ‘innovate or die’ is repeated relentlessly — for him, pro-worker ‘innovation needs to be our new religion’. Nor is he a lone voice. Others are seeking to enmesh unions within the emerging gig economy: for instance, the dynamic Freelancers Union, with around 300,000 members and rising fast, has recently forged a working relationship with Uber with the aim of securing flexible benefits for workers in the gig economy.

Another contrast is the extent to which pro-labour advocates — by no means just trade unionists — are grappling with how tech can be used to support those facing poverty-pay or acute insecurity. Examples abound. Earlier this year the website Hourvoice.com was launched. It’s a site on which low-paid hourly workers can anonymously enter details about their pay and conditions and compare how these stack up in comparison to others. Similarly, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network launched an app on with similar functions for New York’s day laborers. The recent success of Shyft — an app that seeks to place more control over work schedules in the hands of workers (for instance directly swapping shifts with colleagues) is a case in point. Rather than being marketed to corporate HR departments it has successfully been targeted directly at staff.

Others have decided that instead of seeking to change existing business practices, the best strategy is to create worker-friendly business platforms from scratch. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has started its own innovation arm — Fair Care Labs — and is in the process of developing a new “socially responsible” platform on which cleaners will be able to find employment. Juno (just launched in the New York taxi market) and Hello Alfred (provider of a ‘personal butler’ service) are both turning their backs on the casualisation associated with the gig economy by hiring employees instead of independent contractors.

What, if anything, might these scattered straws in the wind suggest for how we think about efforts to build institutions better suited to the evolving needs of the UK’s low-paid workforce?

First, there is the vital issue of how the UK labour movement uses tech to better serve worker interests and engage with new workers. It’s hardly news that technology is being used to transform the nature of work and people management. Yet, for all this flux, it’s telling that it is hard to point to a single major technological shift that has been deployed in an unambiguously pro-worker fashion. That needn’t be so. Some of the same technology that is used to shunt evermore risk onto the shoulders of the workforce could also be used to aggregate the experience of workers so as to bear down on those who mistreat them. And if tech driven ‘disintermediation’ is going to shake-up existing sectors this at least raises the possibility of new forms of employment relation being created. For instance, many of the most insecure workers in the country working in traditional parts of the service sector rely on employment agencies who take up a significant slice of their pay. In some sectors, experiments that remove the middle-man, putting organised groups of workers directly in touch with customers, have potential.

Second, much of the energy and action around questions of work will come from civil society and new organisations rather than the traditional union movement in isolation. Over the last decade the Living Wage campaign has led the way on low-pay. Organisations like Timewise are pushing employers to think differently about creating quality part-time work enabling career progression. Others — like Coworker.org (from the US) — have moved into the space of initiating and championing workplace campaigns spurred by the collapsing cost of organising petitions. To be clear, new start-ups are highly unlikely to replace the traditional wage bargaining role of incumbent unions in established sectors. But when it comes to some of the other roles that unions have traditionally played, or reaching into new un-organised sectors, we should expect a far greater diversity of voices and actors in the future.

A third challenge is the absence of a supportive civic infrastructure to help foster new organisations and ways of working. Innovative pro-labour ideas often struggle to get heard, never mind get funded or adopted. The links between groups thinking about how tech is transforming work, those interested in advocating for workers, and sources of social investment for new civic organisations are few and far between. All of which means there is no recognised home of incubation, no shared space to develop pro-labour ideas and few sources of funding. For a country that is generally rich in social innovation the lack of any infrastructure aimed at encouraging new ways of improving working life is striking and needs to be rectified.

Finally, there is the balance between legislative and voluntaristic strategies. The former has been the source of the major workplace victories over the last generation and more — such as the minimum wage, flexible working, and workplace pensions. This isn’t about to radically change and indeed there are good new legislative causes to push for. But there is a limit to what legislative action can achieve to boost the position of those in, say, the platform-economy, zero-hours or self-employed workforce. And many younger workers — expecting less from the state than those in generations gone by — may be more likely to be attracted by bottom-up campaigns to change employer practices. This reinforces the case for rooted institutions — to share risks, tackle bad employers, organise training, cut-better deals and give political agency to collective hopes — even if they take a very different form to the past.

The wider point is that the union movement needs to succeed in both representing millions of existing members — a formidable task in and of itself — at the same time as pursuing far-reaching institutional-innovation, particularly aimed at a new generation, many of whom will have a very different experience of work to their predecessors. Such innovation might, in the first instance at least, feel very small scale — but starting out is better than standing still.

None of us really know what this might mean for a 21st century labour movement. And a sense of perspective is needed: talk of a new uber-model of trade unionism emerging with similar clout to its industrial forebears is certainly far-fetched. But those schooled in 20th century unionism would be making a grave mistake if they dismiss the rise of so-called app-activists with new ideas as niche and naïve. It’s high time a range of bets were placed on new ways of supporting a new generation of workers. If the labour movement opts to play safe and stick with what it knows it should have no surprises about what is in store.

Gavin Kelly and Dan Tomlinson

This essay first appeared in ‘The Future of Trade Unionism’ published by the think-tank Radix.