Technology, skills and future jobs

Facing up to the coming technology upheavals, what might a next ‘Golden Age’ look like and what are the enablers that need to be put in place to deliver on that promise?

Chris Yapp
25 April 2017

Perry A building Open University, Milton Keynes. Wikicommons/Chmee2. Some rights reserved.Since 2013 there has been considerable growth in the speculation and policy developed around technology developments and their impact on the future of work. The consensus argument is that 40-50% of current jobs can be replaced by robots, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things within a timeframe of 20 years.

The arrival of self-driving autonomous vehicles it is argued will reduce or eliminate the need for taxi drivers, truck drivers and many other transport roles. Unlike automation in the 1970s and 1980s, it is argued that this time it is not blue and white collar jobs that will be affected but serious professional roles. There are now many impressive examples where recent progress in machine learning can match and better in the health, accounting, legal and education professions.

There can be little doubt that the changes in society and the economy since the Bangemann report “Europe and the Global Information Society” in 1994 have been as significant as then predicted. However, the subsequent dotcom bubble and burst remind us not to have too much faith in technological determinism.

Arguments over automation back in the late 1970s have similar echoes to today’s concerns. The rise of automation it was then said would lead to a ‘leisure society’. The history of technologically enabled revolutions is that there are significant structural similarities. Technology advances both destroy and create work. In the long run, technology often creates more jobs than it destroys. In the short term, while we cannot see what those new roles may be the “lump of labour fallacy” often becomes a central concern. The argument is that there is a fixed amount of work, so if some is automated the amount of available work must reduce.

Complexity and new technologies

There are many technologies that are now reaching the level of maturity to create new high-value industries, such as low-carbon, genomics, agritech, fintech,nanotech and many others. These can create work to counter the jobs that are lost. Where jobs are destroyed and where they are created are often in different places. The experience in the 1980s in the UK industrial regions, or Rochester, USA in the last decade illustrate the blight that can fall on areas dependent on a major employer or industry, when it gets left behind.

The skills required for the new work are different from the skills of those whose jobs are destroyed. For instance, when automated medical diagnostics out perform a doctor’s diagnosis, then the new “Doctor” needs different skills and training development to help them navigate to new roles.

Finally, the infrastructure needed to scale the technology to become inclusive has major cost and timescale challenges for industry, government and society alike. Today, scaling the digital infrastructure while meeting global sustainability targets adds another dimension of complexity to the economic and societal challenges that we all face.

1996 was the European Year of Lifelong Learning, in part spurred on by the EU work on the Information Society. Much has happened since then, but at the same time there has been a growing concern over rising inequality in many countries. Incomes at the median level have stagnated or declined, youth unemployment is a serious concern in many countries and the work available has become less stable, the so-called gig economy.

Social and economic innovation

The economist Carlotta Perez has demonstrated in her book “ Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital” that past revolutions have recognisable patterns of technological bubbles followed by recessions and Golden Ages. Facing up to the coming technology upheavals, what might a next ‘Golden Age’ look like and what are the enablers that need to be put in place to deliver on that promise?

The policy challenge is that advances in IT are both a cause of change and a means of effecting change. Trying to disentangle cause and effect has been a constant challenge. Not least, the evidence to demonstrate productivity gains from IT investment has been disputed since the 1980s, as the slow productivity growth since 2008 in the western world remains a major cause of concern.

Fundamental to an inclusive society and economy, reform of education and training is a central policy goal. However, what are we educating and training people for? If 50% of jobs could be made obsolete in half a working life are our professional disciplines and structures fit for purpose?

Considerable development has happened over the last 25 years in e-learning, such as “Virtual Learning Environments” and “Massively Open Online Courses”. Much of the focus has been on the technologies to support learning. However, much of that development has been within largely unreformed institutional frameworks of schools, colleges and universities.

 A historical example from the UK illustrates the Perez argument. Michael Young’s vision of the Open University was realised in 1969. In its 25th year it had 150,000 students, the same number as UK Higher Education had in total in 1969. This was not achieved by putting the technologies of TV and VCRs into existing institutions, but inventing a new institutional form that took advantage of the technology capability. Among its features were:

  1. A Campus without students
  2. A TV production centre at the campus
  3. Academic teams creating high quality content
  4. New models of assessment and feedback
  5. Summer schools to supplement distance learning
  6. Kits to enable home experiments.

Eras of technological innovation have been followed in the past by eras of social innovation to build the next “Golden Age”. I argue, it is that scope of institutional vision that is needed to support lifelong learning at scale in a socially inclusive manner now. I would argue that the technological tools are largely in place after decades of investment to fully realise the potential that the next decades of policy need, and to come up with the institutional arrangements that exploit the last 25 years of investment.

Someone now in their early 20s may need a multitude of ‘careers’ to enjoy a rewarding life economically and socially. In an age of uncertainty, personal, community and national resilience need to underpin the reform of our education and training systems.

The challenge that I would wish to make is: can our current schools, colleges and universities deliver? Times are changing and fast. It is our values that will determine if we can build the next Golden Age. We have the tools and we have the chance: now is the time to implement.

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