Comment: Radical shift strikes labour market

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Wave after wave they come. Yesterday might have seemed a particularly black Thursday, with the total of 11,400 redundancies at ICI and British Gas, and news of these losses led to predictable outrage among British union leaders. But the day before, two Japanese giants were shedding even more staff: Nissan, the car maker, and NKK, the telephone company, were together planning to lose 35,000 jobs. Within the past month in the US, a single company, IBM, announced that it would shed far more still.

The British announcements are particularly miserable because they come at the most painful part of the economic cycle - when the country has yet to show clearly that it has emerged from recession - and they will help lift unemployment rather above the European average. But seen from a global perspective they are pretty typical experiences: big companies the world over are shedding labour. The new jobs will have to come from somewhere else.

But what will the new jobs be? Encouraging the growth of the new jobs is surely a far more important line of action than the (usually fruitless) defence of the old ones. The trouble is that it is far harder to envisage new activities that might or might not take root than it is to identify old jobs that are disappearing. But after a day like yesterday, it is the question to ask. Here are some possible answers.

The starting point is to say that it simply is not possible to identify precisely the jobs of the future any more, for example, than it was possible to predict in 1970 that there would be jobs in video hire shops. What one can do is to point to areas where jobs are likely to be created. There are at least 10. Here they are.

First, there will be jobs in healthcare. The combination of the certainty of an ageing population and the uncertainties of the development of Aids means that more people will be needed in every industrial country in the healthcare area. The jobs will be at a wide variety of levels, from pharmaceutical research to maintenance work in old folks' homes. There are some areas in healthcare where fewer people will be needed (for example, advances in surgical techniques will continue to cut the time patients spend in hospital), but overall job numbers will go up. The task will be to find new ways of financing the health industry to buttress existing ones.

Second, there will be more jobs in education and training, particularly training. As the jobs themselves change ever more quickly, it will become normal for people to learn new skills several times in their careers. That means that other people will be needed to teach the new skills. Basic education levels will also need to rise, so there too will be more jobs. Again new sources of finance will be needed.

Third, there will be many more jobs created by the revolution in telecommunications, which has much further to run. Not only will the homes of the industrial world be cabled up, bringing in a new range of services from video phones to high-quality faxes, butcarrying a personal phone will become as normal as carrying a wallet or a purse.

Fourth, our demand for travel will continue to rise, leading to more employment in the tourist and transport industries, including - and this is really a separate fifth group - jobs in the 'culture' field. We are in the early stages of a cyclical upswing in demand for cultural activities. There are already more people listening to classical music now than ever before; the success of the radio station Classic FM mirrors similar interest in many other industrial countries.

Sixth, and more sadly, there will be more jobs in security: police, private security firms, secure accommodation for offenders, and so on. There will also be much more emphasis on rehabilitation of people who have offended. This is cost- effective, but it does require more staff.

Seventh, similar arguments of cost-effectiveness will apply at the preventive stage. Big social changes, which are not really understood, have clearly increased the need for people who can provide support for couples in the process of breaking up, their children, and other socially disadvantaged people. There will be a problem in finding resources, but the cost-effectiveness of helping people early is so great that resources will be directed to this area.

Eighth, there will more demand for a range of up-market 'professional' private sector advisory services, like financial and legal planning, home decorating, educational advice, and so on. The size of this relatively rich group will continue to grow, albeit slowly, and it will increasingly be prepared to pay for more personal advice than it has been accustomed to buy in the past.

The ninth group of jobs will be a down-market version of number eight: these people will follow the US practice of buying in lower-skilled (though no less important) help, in particular cooking, cleaning and childcare, on an informal basis. These will not be 'jobs' as such, but they will be activities, often on a part-time basis, that will earn some money.

Finally, there will be further growth in self-employment. As companies shed labour they find that they lose the capacity to carry out all sorts of activities that they used to be able to do. So they will buy in help in a vast range of areas, from maintenance of a building to reworking computer software. As communications improve, it will be much easier to call in outsiders in a much more flexible way than in the past.

There are two important features to this list. One is that very few of these jobs will directly replace the semi-skilled male jobs that are bearing the brunt of the present job losses. Most of the new jobs will require high levels of general education. The other is that the frontier between having a job and not having one will blur. Many people will go through most of their working lives without a job as such, but carrying out a series of activities for which they will usually, but not always, be paid.

This means that the relationship between employer and employee, which for most people in work is extremely important, will inevitably weaken. It will be a temporary contract. But other relationships - with parents, friends, 'life partner', favourite charity, golf club - will become more important. In a way, that may be more healthy . . . though this will be cold comfort to the displaced workers at ICI.