“They’ve just shot the wrong thing.” Automation, immigration and Brexit at London Tech Week

The absence of Ashok Vaswani, CEO of Barclays UK, at London Tech Week’s Future of Work panel was a telling hint at the enormous, Brexit-shaped elephant in the room.

While technology and business leaders had gathered to hear a panel talk about the changing face of work, the pound was plummeting to a 31-year low. As a result, optimistic words about the future of 21st-century employment had to jostle around the awkward fact that Britain’s future economy was, and continues to be, very much in the toilet.

The young can look forward to a “more secure” and “prosperous future”, Boris Johnson would later say at a speech. The tone among the panel of experts during the morning talk, however, was less effusive.    

“People have done a protest vote, but they’ve made the wrong protest,” commented Baroness Kidron OBE. “I think we have to remember, around 70% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain. It’s their future and a lot of people, who’ve had the benefit of the post-war settlement as it were, are the ones who voted the other way.”

“I think this is going to create even more disparity,” commented Olivia Streatfeild, partner at Freston Foundry and non-executive director of Trinity Mirror, adding that employers and educators will need to “use technology to narrow that divide”.

Gi Fernando, founder and group CEO of business accelerator Freeformers, went further in slamming the generational divide behind the referendum outcome:

“I find it really ironic, that in this world which is more connected than ever because of technology; more knowledgeable than ever because of technology, that we are more divided than ever because of geography, and more divided than ever because of education. The irony of that is disgraceful.

“The fact that the people who are more connected and more knowledgeable, are the ones whose vote has been more or less ignored, is terrible,” he said.

The threat of automation, not immigration

Outside of Brexit, much of the panel discussion was devoted to the shifts to employment brought about by AI and automation.

“When I was growing up, I thought this was going to be happening in the future – 2058 or something like that,” said Benika Brown, co-founder of Shaping Tomorrow’s Women, which organises and runs workshops aimed at developing young women’s self-esteem and confidence. “But I’ve seen it happen more and more. People are being made redundant.”

“Children that are growing up now – they’re fighting against technology that’s growing alongside them,” continued Brown, pointing to issues with an education system that doesn’t build creative skills in its students.

Indeed, several members of the panel noted the failures of the current education system to safeguard against the future of automation. A list of the most at-risk jobs was read, the same previously released by the University of Oxford and Deloitte. The panel was understandably concerned about the impact of the incoming redundancies, and they aren’t alone. Labour’s Tom Watson has previously called on the government to set up a royal commission to examine the impact of robots on the UK’s workforce.

“They’ve just shot the wrong thing.”

With this subject, too, the connection to Brexit was difficult to avoid. “Those people who are living in fear of an immigrant coming from Europe and taking their job should maybe be more in fear of a robot taking their job,” commented a member of the audience during the Q&A. “They’ve just shot the wrong thing.”

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