We need to differentiate between future jobs and future work
There are many estimates of how many jobs might be susceptible to automation in the coming decade. Even those at the conservative end are in the teens. Exactly how many jobs might go is to be determined. It will depend on unpredictable factors of human behaviour. But in a market economy where profit is prized and shareholder value is the goal, and when public sector spending is squeezed for efficiency not focused on outcomes, it seems inevitable that cheap, reliable machines will displace some of the expensive, complex humans we employ today.
By ‘some’, I mean ‘millions’.
The typical response is that many new jobs will also be created. And they will. But I don’t believe that jobs, in the traditional sense, will be created in the volume that would be required to offer meaningful employment to the many millions of cab drivers, call centre operators, retail assistants, warehouse workers, lawyers and accountants, who might be displaced by technology.
This is different to saying that there won’t be work, however. But work is something very different to a ‘job’. A job means a mutual commitment with an employer. It means benefits and protections. These have already been eroded. There has been some pushback from governments around protections for those in the gig economy. But I think it’s only a matter of time before these rights are overturned — sometimes in the most dramatic way possible. After all, robot cab drivers will have no rights.
So what might future work look like?
One of the core tenets of my belief about the future is that technology is reshaping our organisations — public and private — from large monoliths into networks of smaller components. The smallest component is the individual, the freelancer.
This has been one of the fastest growing forms of work on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, and I don’t see this growth slowing. I can see more and more people having a corporate wrapper around themselves that allows them to take on piecemeal work at a commercial, rather than employed, rate.
This might be bad news for those rates. And while some people might enjoy the flexibility, this is only a positive if you have the wealth to say no to work. For many, work saying no to you is a terrifying prospect, with a lack of income translating into a lack of housing in short order.
The good news is that there is plenty to do. And it is work that might be better suited to people than machines. A few examples:
In both the UK and the US, national infrastructure has faced decades of underinvestment. New build catches the headlines: HS2 and Crossrail for example. But there is an enormous amount of maintenance work to be done, on both public and privately held assets.
Though machines can augment every aspect of this work from the design process to the delivery, sheer human flexibility of thought, and motion, will remain in demand.
The more things in our world become digitised, the more we crave rich, tactile, physical experiences. A higher proportion of our spend goes on experiences over goods, we eat out more, when we drink it is lower volume and higher quality. We start buying vinyl again.
I think the demand for the human-made, the personal, the crafted, will continue to grow. Fashion will dictate that for every mass- and machine-produced item in your home or on your person, you demonstrate some personality with more crafted items. Digital consumption will continue to be balanced with experiences you just can’t get online.
Care is the oft-cited example of an industry that won’t be disrupted by automation, and that faces growing demand thanks to our ageing population. Care absolutely will see a measure of automation. But the bulk of the work will still be carried out by humans for now.
The problem with this is the low value we continue to place on care work, both formal and informal. We pay very little to those raising our children or caring for our parents, or anyone else who needs our support, for that matter. If redistribution of wealth is needed anywhere, it’s here.
Since the passing of the days of ‘Cool Britannia’, we have been very poor at celebrating the power of our creative sector in this country. And yet it remains a global powerhouse, turning out a disproportionate amount of the world’s stories, art, design, architecture, music, television formats and more.
The disruption of the traditional media channels threatens this industry, and our national strength, perhaps more than any other. But while we have this power we ought to recognise its value and promote it as a career path — not least because creativity is a critical and under-trained skill in other disciplines.
This is far from an exhaustive list, but I hope you get the idea: jobs may be disappearing, but there will be work available. The question is how do we support those in inconsistent work, how do we enable constant learning and reskilling to allow people to keep up with a fast-moving market for skills. How do we make this new world of work a positive for more people, not a terrifying world of risk.