By its very nature technological advance in the workplace inevitably leads to winners and losers. The development and adoption of cloth-weaving machines led to the early 19th century Luddite riots as skilled knitters rounded on the progress that threatened, and ultimately decimated, their livelihoods. More recently, one can imagine supermarket cashiers feeling similarly aggrieved at the introduction of scanning machines, although so far they have proven to be far more restrained.
Most policy-makers tend to dismiss concerns about the labour market effects of machine automation as misplaced on the theoretical grounds that the productivity gains raise overall incomes and general living standards. Otherwise they would never gain traction in the marketplace. Moreover, those whose jobs are eliminated can, so the argument goes, be retrained to take advantage of the new opportunities. Or allow their wages to adjust appropriately.
Another reason for this nonchalance is that for the most part the displacement impact has been confined to those engaged in manual, routine, repetitive and low-wage tasks. Those further up the earnings and educational ladder whose jobs involve “independent and creative thinking”, “cognitive judgement” and “mission critical decision-making”etc., where machine substitution is much harder, were immune to the pain, enjoyed the gains, and carried far more political clout.
But more recent research has suggested that the job shuffling impacts of increasingly advanced computerisation and robotics are rapidly heading towards “white-collar” lawns. According to analysts at Oxford University, more than one-third of current UK jobs are at risk from new innovations over the next two decades. These include commercial pilots, taxi drivers, real estate agents, mathematical technicians, credit analysts and accountants.
One response to this is that our children should be focussing heavily on STEM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), but this runs up against the twist that those occupations which are predicted to be least at risk are an eclectic mix. Doctors, dentists and lawyers are all present as expected. But jobs where interpersonal skills, nuance and empathy are centrally important – such as pre-school teachers, personal trainers, concierges, and flight attendants – are also predicted to be highly resilient to robotic encroachment.
So far the analysis remains incomplete. For example, it doesn’t allow for the possibility that accountants may give up some of their lucrative fees and/or raise their own productivity and range of services to see off the competition. Moreover, the possibility of widespread resistance to the new technology, such as that facing the Uber taxi service by old-school cabbies, cannot be ruled out.
Nonetheless, the general thrust of the argument remains germane. Simply exhorting our children to strive for solid educational knowledge might well be necessary for success in the workplace of tomorrow. But beyond a narrow range of highly skilled and specialised roles it is unlikely to be sufficient. Lively and enquiring minds that are not afraid to challenge the status quo, embrace change, attack problems with gusto and innovation, and lead others are also going to be vital in keeping the robots at bay.