I went to see Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, speak yesterday. I asked him a question, about the growing divide between different areas of the country.
It was the wrong question.
What I should have asked him, and what I will ask every politician from now on, is what they are going to do about automation.
Make or break
As far as Parliament is concerned, the jury is still out on whether automation will destroy more jobs than it creates. That appears to be the advice from this briefing note, published last month.
This is understandable. The evidence is slight for the argument that this round of automation is different. Every previous technological revolution has created an economic benefit so great it outweighed the jobs it displaced in specific areas — agriculture, manufacturing etc. Even a relatively recent Deloitte study suggests that technology has created more jobs than it destroyed just in the last fifteen years.
And yet. Looking from my position, at the technologies and trends that I do, I come to one conclusion. Automation will destroy many more jobs than it creates. Many of the jobs it creates will themselves be taken by robotic systems.
There will be areas of growth, some in job numbers and some in wages. Some in areas we haven’t foreseen yet. But what is hard to see is just how these sectors will create jobs on the scale that automation will destroy. Jobs in their millions in retail, banking, manufacturing, logistics, and professional services. Jobs like customer services, data administration, call centre operator, warehouse worker, fork lift truck driver, paralegal and junior accountant.
This is being acknowledged in some parts of government and its associated bodies. The last government committed to create a ‘leadership council’ to examine the issue (though it didn’t). Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England gave a stark warning last year.
And yet I don’t hear politicians talking about this issue. They still talk about the economy, equality, education, jobs and social mobility without the context of this impending challenge to all of those things.
Automation is not an inevitability. Nor are its negative effects. In many ways I would welcome automation wholeheartedly, if we had a strategy to deal with it. Why shouldn’t we hand the work to the robots? We just have to make sure that doing so doesn’t leave millions desolate and disconnected from society.
But if we’re going to do that, the time to talk about the issue is now.
So I’ll ask. “Dear politician, what are you going to do about automation?”