Last month the Centre for Cities published their Cities Outlook 2018 which highlighted that whilst technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will boost jobs across the country, there was also the possibility for a high level of job displacement with cities in the South faring better than those in the Midlands and North.
The fear of mass job displacement from an increase in automation and AI has been warned of for many years now. But it is nothing new, indeed similar fears were raised against the rise of the typewriter, the steam engine or even the spinning jenny. In each case, the overall fear of mass unemployment has never come to fruition.
Delve back into the history books and you’ll find that whilst the Tolpuddle Martyrs did protest against the mechanisation of their industry, it was not the machines themselves they rebelled against but the factory owners and their scant regard for the human beings the machines replaced. Many of the martyrs could see the benefits of the machines, but felt betrayed by factory owners as they were thrown on the scrap heap with no means to feed themselves or their families.
Move through the years to the introduction of mechanisation and fears of mass employment were raised again. If we just consider the agricultural industry at this time, whilst mechanisation did reduce the percentage of the UK’s workforce employed on the land (from 25 per cent in 1840 to less than four per cent by the advent of World War One) at the same time overall unemployment rates across the whole economy fell sharply to less than five per cent.
Fast forward a few decades and the advent of the personal computer. Fears were raised for the disappearance of the large typing pools companies employed. But again, overall unemployment and prosperity has not suffered with the growth of personal computing, indeed without this technology many of the jobs we consider ‘normal’ today simply would not exist.
Within the manufacturing industry, high levels of productivity would not be possible without the introduction of automation. A typical automotive manufacturer simply could not keep up with the demand for volume or consistency without these technologies. So whilst a typical vehicle assembly plant may have seen the number of workers in its body assembly area fall with a sharp increase in the number of robots, the complete assembly plant have seen significant increases in prosperity and jobs. This cascades into the plant’s supply chain and local supporting businesses. The same comments can be made for highly automated warehouses that can process more orders in faster times and as a result grow to meet demand, employing more people. To show this, studies at London School of Economics by Graetz and Michaels in 2015 showed that there is no direct link between an increase in the use of automation and jobs lost.
In every case, there has been a displacement in jobs from manual, low skilled and low paid to ‘new’ higher skilled, knowledge based and higher paid ones. As an economy, the UK has adapted and created these new jobs as technology moves forward. The challenge which the Cities Outlook report highlights is ensuring that the workforce is equipped for this change. This means ensuring that future generations are given the skills to fully utilise and develop these technologies by:
- Reforming the education system
- Investing in lifelong learning and technical education
- Providing retraining for those displaced by automation and AI
- Accepting that some employees will not be able to retrain and hence support them to find meaningful employment suited to their skills
The Centre for Cities also highlighted that there will be a sharp divide in how cities are affected by the introduction of automation and AI. Examining the list of the top 10 cities at risk of highest change in employment, its unsurprising to see that they are heavily reliant on retail, customer service and warehousing industries to support their workforces. It is these industries that are often highlighted as being most at risk of automation and AI and so it is right that the Cities Outlook report calls for additional support for these areas to address these changes. However, it is interesting to note that Mansfield, the city at most of risk according to the Centre of Cities see their future as different to that portrayed by the report.
So, what is the real situation? Is mass employment a real possibility as a result of automation and AI despite the (proven) greater prosperity and rates of employment it can bring? Well, it is true that whilst automation and AI can provide growth and jobs, it could cause a significant change in the nature of work we carry out in the future just as it has in the past. The significant change in work is perhaps one of biggest challenges that the UK economy and wider society face today. It is only by equipping our current and future generations to adapt and harness these opportunities will we be able to truly benefit from them. To not do so runs the risk of significant unemployment, social deprivation discord.
This article is a response to the BBC News article ‘North and Midlands ‘most likely to lose out to robots’ published on 29 January 2018: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-42810898