Huge job losses are being predicted across the majority of sectors in the UK, but losing jobs to new tech is nothing new.
All three of the industrial revolutions brought waves of unemployment and demonstrated the impact advances in technology and machinery can have on entire industries.
What is technological unemployment?
Technological unemployment is the trend of job losses caused by breakthroughs in technology. This is usually because the technology is more efficient or cost effective than a human in the same role.
“It is unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour”John Maynard Keynes
Although the concept of mass unemployment is nothing new with people having lived through previous industrial revolutions, the big difference this time is the scale and pace of change. Automation and new technological breakthroughs are happening in multiple sectors including services, automotive and manufacturing.
Oxford University suggests 35% of UK jobs are at risk of automation over the next two decades, while the Bank of England puts the figure at 15 million at-risk jobs over the same period
Does tech recruit less people anyway?
One argument tech founders and influencers in the industry make is that the technology sector is replacing jobs lost to tech and that technology like AI won’t replace humans. But we only have to look at technology companies to see into the future of employment in the UK.
A quick search of employee counts shows tech companies don’t employ large numbers of people, they use technology to automate processes and jobs to keep their headcount and costs low.
Comparison of jobs to tech company and their more traditional counterparts
Netflix: 5,500 / BBC: 20,916
Amazon: 566,000 / Walmart: 2.3million
Airbnb: 3,100 / Hilton Group: 163,000
In order to compete in years to come legacy companies will have to follow suit and reduce staff numbers to remain competitive, with those staff will be replaced with technology and automation.
It’s not just low skilled workers
The biggest losses in previous industrial revolutions have been amongst low skilled workers, being replaced by heavy machinery. The 4th industrial revolution doesn’t discriminate in the same way – with technological advances in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning predicted to affect people in high skilled roles.
Gaining problem solving, creative and social skills
Workers are in a race against technology.
Robotics, machine learning and AI are all developing at astonishing rates and for workers to stand a chance of keeping up they will need to learn new skills. Skills that can’t be replaced. There will never be a replacement for face to face human connection or creative strategic thinking.
Coding is now commonplace in schools across the country but what about the many low skilled workers?
- Who will need to retrain and learn new skills to find employment in the 2020s?
- Should we just let them get on with it?
- Whose responsibility is it to help those in need when the inevitable job losses happen?
- Should governments provide support to employers to retrain staff likely to lose their jobs to tech?
- Should individuals take ownership and learn new skills?
Universal Basic Income
Should there be a safety net for workers who lose their jobs to technology?
One idea floated by economists is Universal Basic Income (UBI) with £10,000 being given to every British citizen under the age of 55. With big backers including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerburg – Universal Basic Income has been trialed in Finland and one Indian state is implementing a basic income scheme by 2022.
Critics say it will lead to laziness and people choosing not to work. Others argue it will be a catalyst for improved social care and innovation.
As technological unemployment picks up pace and more people lose their jobs, we may well see increasing social tension and people struggling which could lead to a change in thinking on the way we see and support the “unemployed”.
For many of us, automation and technology are scary and leave us fearing the worst.
Nobody really knows how big technological unemployment will be in the years to come. One thing we do know, however, is that there needs to be a meaningful conversation happening right now about how we support those who will inevitably lose their jobs.