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8 January 2018 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal


Mass unemployment owing to technological advances is “highly unlikely”, according to a report by the Future of Work commission. Herpreet Kaur Grewal reports.

The study states that “there is no substantive evidence that Britain is heading towards widespread technological unemployment” and “a more nuanced debate about the impact and potential of automation that recognises that technological change is already having social and economic effects” is needed.

The main problem faced is “not the number or availability of jobs but their productivity and quality”, it says, concluding that the focus had to be on “how best to increase levels of human and capital investment, spread the benefits of technological innovation, and create good work”.

But it does note that without policy intervention, the power of the high skilled over the low-skilled workforce would increase. Technological change is “likely to both raise the productivity of high-skill workers and increase competition for low-skill jobs which are not susceptible to automation”.

The report says low-skilled workers, who make up 45 per cent of the labour market, are particularly vulnerable and without intervention are “at risk of a severe and sustained decline in their wages”. These workers need a new education and skills system that focuses on lifelong learning and offers extensive opportunities to retrain.

Empowerment and autonomy

Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party and MP for West Bromwich East, started the commission, which is co-chaired by Helen Mountfield QC, a lawyer and mediator specialising in the field of public and employment law. 

Other commissioners include Naomi Climer (president of the Institute of Engineering and Technology), Prof Michael Sandel (Harvard University), and Prof Michael Osborne (Dyson associate professor in machine learning, Oxford University).

Monica Parker, founder of Hatch Analytics, welcomed the report, stating that its focus on learning, empowerment and autonomy were positive. 

But she added: “I still feel we’re missing a trick, though. Focusing on hard skills and technology will not be enough. A child today will have 17 jobs in five industries. To manage that level of change, we have an obligation to upskill them for resiliency and empathy as well. So long as skills such as these are relegated to the realm of ‘soft-skills’ we will not be adequately prepared for the future.” 

Parker said: “I believe we must have an honest and robust discussion about universal basic income. While the report assumes jobs lost will be replaced, what if they aren’t, or don’t need to be? The very nature and meaning of work as it aligns to individual purpose needs to be philosophically and practically parsed. Work as we know it may indelibly change, and therefore so should our concept of income.”  

A separate report by consultancy Oxford Insights says the UK is the nation most ready for artificial intelligence technology. Its AI Readiness Index shows that it is the UK that has the “world-leading centres for AI research and strong technology industry”. But the study warns that to stay in first place, the UK needs to continue to invest “to remain competitive”. The index considers factors including how much investment there was in areas of public service reform, economy and skills and digital infrastructure. 

Learn, protect and survive

A selection of recommendations from the Future of Work Commission’s report:

1. PRIORITISING GOOD WORK: a ‘good work’ objective should be written into existing government policies, standards and codes. Government departments should then produce their own action points that set out how they will achieve this objective. Government, the Bank of England, businesses and trade unions should work together to generate a constant stream of higher-quality data and analysis about changes to the labour market, and the impact of introducing new technology. 

2. SKILLS FOR THE FUTURE: Lifelong learning, technology training in schools and support for job seekers that responds to changing labour market demands. 

3. PROMOTING INNOVATION: More investment in innovation through stronger public investment in new technologies; more support for SMEs through greater public and private investment to support innovation and scale-up of those SMEs most likely to create good jobs; better infrastructure to support closer collaborations between SMEs, academia, technical colleges and local government, and drive local expertise, placed-based innovation and respond to local needs. Government should aim to increase jobs in the public sector, which pay above the floor statutory minimum level of the National Living Wage.

4. NEW MODELS: CORPORATE GOVERNANCE AND ALTERNATIVE OWNERSHIP: More worker participation in how new technologies are integrated into a business; through worker representation on boards and by establishing staff councils. Companies should also be flexible and willing to deploy whatever mechanism they decide best fulfils the new duty. 

5. LABOUR RIGHTS AND STANDARDS: All workers should be protected under labour law protection. A new single status statutory definition of worker should be worked on. A single-tier system is needed to enhance workers’ and employers’ understanding of their mutual obligations and decrease regulatory complexity. 

6. ETHICS AND THE NEW TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION: Creation of an independent cross-disciplinary Standing Commission on Ethics and Technology; ethics training; kite-marks for old and new business models.