1: The Changing London Job Landscape
There are growing fears that in the not-too-distant future, the majority of us will be replaced from our current jobs by technology. These fears appear to be quite well justified. In 2014, Deloitte LLP invited two Oxford academics, Frey and Osborne, to investigate the risks of jobs in London being taken over by technology over the next 10 to 20 years. They found that almost one in three of all London jobs were at risk of being taken over.
However, the impact of technology is not the same on all jobs. As Frey and Osborne found out, low paying jobs were more likely to be taken over by technology than high paying jobs. In fact, according to their calculations, people earning £30 000 or less were more likely to go than those earning £100 000 and above. This suggests that the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is likely to increase further as technology penetrates deeper into the workplace. This has serious implications for London, and other major cities – technology is likely to concentrate wealth into the hands of a few very rich people, and consign the majority of city populations to low-level menial jobs.
Frey and Osborne also discovered a hollowing out of mid-level salary jobs, a phenomenon that Paul Sissons has termed “the hourglass effect.” In their study, the jobs that were most likely to go were middle-skill, middle-income, routine cognitive and manual tasks such as office and administrative support, book-keeping, sales and services, transportation, construction and manufacturing. These jobs make up the bulk of typical London occupations, and all of them consist of procedures that can easily be programmed into a computer system.
London jobs that are least likely to go include high salary jobs in senior management, IT, engineering and science, legal services, arts and education. Paul Sissons classifies these jobs as managerial, professional, and associate professional and technical occupations. According to him, these jobs accounted for more than 75% in employment growth in the UK over the period 2001 to 2007.
Frey and Osborne also identified a number of low level salary jobs that are least likely to be replaced by technology. These include healthcare, personal services jobs like food services, cleaning, child care, hairdressing and recreation occupations. According to Paul Sisson, each of these low-skill, low-wage jobs is quite difficult to automate because “they consist of either a series of non-routine physical tasks, or because it relies on inter-personal (soft) skills”.
2: Emerging Job Skills for the Future
Frey and Osborne suggest that jobs that are least likely to be replaced by technology require a combination of technical, social and creative skills. In their study they found out that in London, at the moment, and in the near future, the five top skills in demand are digital know how, management, creativity, entrepreneurship and problem solving.
It is likely that new jobs are likely to emerge in place of those jobs that have been taken over by technology. As Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole, who all work as economists at Deloitte LLP, found out, when technology is adopted, it leads to job increases. Using census data for England and Wales going back 150 years, they found that the general effect of technological change, from the invention of the steam engine right up to today’s Internet age, has been to increase jobs, usually in completely new areas. It goes without saying that for the case of London, any new jobs created are likely to demand skills in the top five skills now in demand: digital know how, management, creativity, entrepreneurship and problem solving.
3: Preparing for the Technological Onslaught
Given the changing London job landscape as a result of technology, we can do one of two things. We can choose to do nothing and let events take their own course. This would be suicidal. The London Poverty Profile report for the year 2015 indicates that almost one third (27%) of all Londoners live in poverty. The majority of these people are in a working family, and the main reason for poverty is the toxic combination of low salaries and high housing costs. Doing nothing will certainly lead to further increases in the proportion of people living in poverty. In fact, it’s not unthinkable that doing nothing will lead to poverty levels reaching the high percentiles common in the least developed countries. And not doing anything has serious political and existential consequences for London and the UK. As we saw in the Brexit vote, people who feel left out by economic changes are no longer willing to just look on and do nothing. After all, as history testifies, a hungry population is a very angry population indeed.
The other option, which is the only viable option, is to prepare London for the emerging technological onslaught. There is need for re-training and education for all those people in low level jobs, and those in mid-salary level jobs that are threatened by technology. The formal education system alone cannot cope. Whole communities, including children and adults, need to be equipped with the key skills that are now in demand: digital know how, management, creativity, entrepreneurship and problem solving. One approach to this is promoting informal community-based learning.
In 2009 the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills published a white paper aimed at promoting informal learning within communities. Entitled “the Learning Revolution”, this white paper sought to “empower more people to organise themselves to learn, with opportunities designed by communities for communities.” The paper drew up some guiding principles, which they adopted from the UNESCO 1996 paper entitled “Learning: The treasure within.” These principles are:
- Learning to know – becoming inspired, discovering and exploring, developing a passion for learning, acquiring knowledge and understanding of ourselves, our immediate world and beyond
- Learning to do – gaining skills, confidence, competence and practical abilities
- Learning to live together – learning tolerance, mutual understanding and interdependence, sharing the experience of learning with family and friends
- Learning to be – developing ourselves, our mental and physical capacity, wellbeing and autonomy, and our ability to take control of our lives and influence the world around us.
Although these government efforts have been shelved since the change in government, it is imperative that we resuscitate the community-based informal learning programme. London has the highest concentration of world-class universities, all of which are leading in STEM research and education. London therefore has sufficient human capacity to initiate and lead community efforts to equip its people with the skills that are needed for today. In this regard, I see London academics and university students going into non-traditional learning spaces like churches, mosques, pubs, and food restaurants to help people acquire the five critical skills now needed for survival in the technological era. This will be authentic learning in practice, and though it may not lead to academic credentials, it will certainly empower people to have mastery over the incoming technology, including the setting up of tech entrepreneurial ventures up and down London. Is this not costly and improbable, we may ask. Certainly not, if we consider the ghastly consequences of doing nothing.
- Carl Benedikt Frey & Michael A. Osborne. 2014. Agiletown: The relentless march of technology and London’s response. Deloitte LLP, London.
- Ian Stewart, Debapratim De, & Alex Cole. Technology and people: the great job-creating machine. Deloitte LLP, London.
- Paul Sissons. 2011. “The Hourglass and the Escalator: Labour market change and mobility.”paper of the Bottom Ten Million research programme, The Work Foundation, London, UK (2011).
- Hannah Aldridge, Theo Barry Born, Adam Tinson and Tom MacInnes (2015). London’s Poverty Profile 2015. London. http://www.londonspovertyprofile.org.uk/
- Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. 2009. The Learning Revolution. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London
- 1996. Learning: The treasure within. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.
- Hackett, L. Shutt, and N. Maclachlan. 2012. The Way We’ll Work: Labour market trends and preparing for the hourglass.AGCAS