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As automation swallows the world of work, will we restrain the robots to protect the dignity of labour?

More than half of British workers are offered no opportunities to learn new skills by their employers – and this is at the precise moment it’s becoming more important than ever

Olesya Dmitracova
Monday 16 September 2019 12:46 BST
Russia launches humanoid robot on International Space Station mission

What is the point of economic activity? Well, the most obvious reason people start and run companies or work for them is to make a living. But there are other, subtler reasons we trade effort and time for money. It gives us a sense of purpose, achievement, independence, and our jobs are often a big part of our identity.

Could we not derive those benefits from a challenging hobby mountain climbing maybe? To an extent. But to quote Virginia Woolf, money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. Of course, there is also purpose and dignity in staying at home to take care of children or elderly parents, or in volunteering and I hope no one would call those activities frivolous.

The question of why we work is increasingly important as we enter a new age of automation, often called the “fourth industrial revolution”, and it should be front and centre both for the companies driving this transformation or benefitting from it, and for the governments designing policies to mitigate its negative effects on workers.

In a report last year, PwC estimated that the net impact on UK employment from new technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), over the next 20 years will be broadly neutral, as many existing jobs disappear but numerous new ones are also created.

A forthcoming study lends support to this prediction. Economist James Bessen of the Technology & Policy Research Initiative at Boston University School of Law has looked at US manufacturing over the past two centuries and concluded that automation eliminates jobs in some industries but creates jobs in others.

This leads to two main questions. First, how can we help existing workers retrain for the new occupations while training the workers of the future (our children) for the jobs of the future? Second, how do we support those who are unable to retrain?

The PwC report recommends government actions such as a national retraining programmes for older workers, measures to encourage people to continually update their skills and greater investment in so-called STEAM skills that will be most in demand in an increasingly automated world. The acronym is an expansion of the familiar STEM science, technology, engineering and mathematics where A stands for art and design. (I note that there is no J for journalism.)

People who struggle to adjust to automation, or who may be temporarily unemployed while they are retraining, should be paid something like basic income, funded by the productivity gains expected from AI. One option put forward by PwC is to make such payments conditional on some contribution to society for example, through volunteering or caring roles so that it is not just “something for nothing”. That makes sense from the perspective of fairness but it also goes back to the importance of work for our mental well-being.

Companies also have a role to play. They should be incentivised, perhaps through the tax system, to keep or even expand their workforce by developing workers’ skills or, as MIT economist Daron Acemoglu has recently suggested, by creating new labour-intensive tasks that also improve productivity.

On the upskilling front, UK firms in particular will have their work cut out. A survey by PwC released last week showed that 51 per cent of British workers are offered no opportunities to learn new skills by their employers. That is the worst result out of 11 countries, including the US, China, India, France and Poland, and is leading to “mistrust and fear” of automation and technology, the consultancy found.

Most companies prioritise making money above all else and many governments are focused on increasing their country’s overall output, often without due regard to the losers from economic progress. Wealth creation is an important goal but unemployment for hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands of people should not be an acceptable side effect. If necessary, the adoption of new technologies should be slowed to give workers more time to adjust.

Executives and ministers may even find that making sure the fourth industrial revolution is a bloodless one will be good for their own mental well-being.

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