Robots in the Jobcentre: Bank of England warns 15 million UK jobs at risk
During the Industrial Revolution, a group of textile workers and weavers calling themselves the Luddites revolted against the machines they perceived to be taking their jobs. The 19th-century dissenters smashed the stocking frames, power looms and spinning frames that were being introduced to their workshops and factories.
Yesterday, the chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, was asked whether or not the Luddites had been proved right by the current wave of automation. His response suggested that, if anything, the scale of risk to human jobs has become worse in the past couple of centuries.
“Technology appears to be resulting in faster, wider and deeper degrees of hollowing-out than in the past,” Haldane said. “Why? Because 20th-century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones, too. The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened.”
Should we pick up hammers and start smashing Tesco checkouts?
Speaking to Britain’s trade union federation, the TUC, Haldane revealed the results of a study by the Bank, which suggested that a great deal of UK jobs could be at risk of automation. The study classified UK jobs into three categories, according to the risk they face from automation. It then multiplied these by the numbers of people employed in each category, reaching an eventual figure of 15 million jobs.
So, should we pick up hammers and start smashing Tesco checkouts?
Get creative (and learn to code)
For those looking for work in post-recession Britain, the job market can often feel pretty bleak. Coupled with 2010’s rise in university tuition fees, the attitude pressed onto young people by careers officers is often that it’s a safer to eschew creative subjects in favour of something that leads to a secure office job. Something like accounting.
Now, with the Bank of England’s study, it turns out those jobs could be the ones at most risk of disappearing completely within the next decade, as robots begin to replace the roles of many office workers.
On top of yesterday’s study, a recent report found that 47% of US employment is at risk of being snatched up by machines. The BBC also recently produced a frightening list, based on a study by researchers at the University of Oxford and Deloitte, noting that 35% of current jobs in the UK are at risk of computerisation over the next 20 years. The ones most at risk? Office jobs like admin, legal secretary and financial accounts manager.
According to a figures released this week by job site Indeed, young people are being massively misinformed over their future careers when it comes to the risks of jobs being lost to automation. From Indeed’s survey of 1,000 16- to 25-year-olds, less than half (47%) said their teacher, lecturer or tutor discussed this trend with them. This suggests a gulf between the future job market and the future job market that is being presented to young people.
Less than half said their teacher discussed this trend with them
“Office jobs have an appeal, but they may be easy to automate over time,” Paul D’Arcy, senior vice president of Indeed, told me. “Accounting is a good example of those types of jobs as it’s purely rules-based. It’s one of the jobs where creativity is probably most seen as a disadvantage. And so while it’s very appealing as a job that feels respectful and attractive right now, it may not be one that has as much opportunity in the long run.”
Combining creativity with technical skills
So what should young people be doing to future-proof their careers? Well, according to Indeed, it involves a combination of technical ability and creativity. Jobs hiring for these type of roles outweighed Indeed’s job searches for these roles in Q3 2015.
Games developer has 2% more postings than searches
For example, Indeed says that the role of application developer currently has 47% more postings than searches, UI developer has 19.5% more postings than searches, architect has 12% more postings than searches, and games developer has 2% more postings than searches.
(Above: Bloodborne – Games developer job postings outweigh searches)
Roles like these, which hinge on a combination of creative and technical skills, are seeing significant growth. So much so, in fact, that it could end up having substantial implications on the UK economy of the next decade.
“Historically in the UK there’s been a broad sector of middle-class jobs. Those jobs are shrinking and its becoming bifurcated, where you’ve got these very high-value, high-skill jobs, and then a set of more commoditised jobs,” D’Arcy told me.
“I think what we’re going to see is a stronger segmentation of the labour market into what becomes two economies. One, incredibly high-value talent that is designing the automation and driving innovation, and that combines these technical and creative skills, and one with everyone else. For those people, it doesn’t feel like there’s as much opportunity. There’s not substantial wage growth, and over time there’s increasing pressure on their jobs from automation.”
If D’Arcy is right, and the middle-class job sector is teetering on collapse, that presents a somewhat bleak image of a future society – with stark divisions between high-value creative coders and “everyone else”. That in itself is probably enough to inspire a few Luddites. There are, however, positives to be gained in encouraging young people to pursue creativity over purely rules-based vocational work.
While technical knowhow is important, a crucial safeguard against automation is the aspect of nurturing human creativity. This emphasis could have an immensely positive effect on education – potentially returning the idea of a university as a place where students can explore and express ideas, rather than be run through a very expensive job mill.