Robots threaten 15m UK jobs, warns Carney

On the way out: Jobs which feature a lot of repetitive work tend to be at the greatest risk.

The governor of the Bank of England has said automation could soon leave half of Britain’s workforce unemployed. A portent of a dire future? Or could a world without work be liberating?

In 1964 AT&T, the largest company in the USA, employed 758,611 people. Now Google is even bigger — but just 55,000 people work for it.

This is part of a pattern. Companies, especially multinational giants, can make more money while employing fewer people. The impact of human labour on economic growth is declining.

In short, humans are becoming useless.

And this week Mark Carney, the Bank of England’s governor, issued a stark warning. He said automation — robots doing work instead of humans — could cost half of British workers their jobs. Livelihoods will be ‘mercilessly destroyed’. Middle class jobs will be ‘hollowed out’.

The impact is already being felt across the developed world. In the USA, working-age employment has fallen since 2000. The number of under-employed young people is growing. New industries are hiring fewer people than old ones. Many jobs still require human instinct, but computers could encroach on roles previously thought irreplaceable.

The trend has echoes of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, when new machines destroyed jobs, and the decline of manufacturing in the late 20th century. These precedents suggest the implications could be far-reaching.

In the US city of Youngstown, Ohio, the local steel mill closed in 1977, costing 50,000 jobs. Cities such as this saw rises in depression, spousal abuse and suicide. ‘The cultural breakdown matters even more than the economic breakdown,’ says local professor John Russo. And voters in these areas were crucial in the shock election of Donald Trump as president.

But there is also a growing ‘post-workist’ movement — people eagerly preparing for the decline of employment. Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian, says American society has ‘an irrational belief in work for work’s sake’. His ideas are not new: celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes predicted technology would dramatically shorten the working week. And a Gallup poll in 2014 suggested 70% of Americans did not feel engaged by their current jobs.

So should we fear a world without work?

Job-a-tron

Yes, say pessimists. People will feel worthless and unhappy, and will turn on each other. There will be violent resistance, similar to that of the Luddites. And there is a credible link between the loss of job security and nationalist or intolerant sentiment — hence the 19th century was followed by world wars in the 20th.

Stop worrying, cry post-workists. Change brings opportunity: the industrial revolution, for example, helped America to expand westwards. Technology could give us more free time and provide us with everything we need to create a fairer society. In the long term, we will be grateful for the end of the working era.

You Decide

  1. Could a robot do your dream job?
  2. Should we fear a world without work?

Activities

  1. In pairs, write a job advert for a position you would like to have when you are older. Then discuss: would a robot do this better than a human?
  2. Find out about a robot, a drone or an app which threatens to make some jobs defunct. Write a one-page memo explaining how it could do this. Could a human outwit it? Return to class to discuss.

Some People Say...

“A life without work is the ultimate dream.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Should I really be thinking about my career already?
It is not too early to start thinking about what you will do when you are older. Your time at school is a good chance to get the right experience and show employers you have the right skills for them. For example, you could start a Young Enterprise business if you are in the sixth form, or volunteer at a local charity shop.
So how can I stop robots making me unemployed?
You will need to be more flexible and resilient than your elders. It is difficult to know exactly which jobs will be threatened — for example, before Airbnb came along, few people would have realised the hotel industry could be threatened by smartphones. But human qualities are your big advantage over the robots — for example, you can think and empathise better than them.

Word Watch

Bigger
AT&T was worth the equivalent of $267bn. Google is worth $370bn.
Declining
According to US government data, the share of the country’s economic output now paid in wages is at its lowest since records began in the mid-20th century.
Fewer
Nine out of ten American workers are in occupations that existed 100 years ago. Just 5% of the jobs created in the USA between 1993 and 2013 were in high-tech sectors.
Irreplaceable
For example, some research now suggests people are more honest in therapy sessions when they think they are talking to a computer. This could threaten psychologists.
Jobs
Particularly in agriculture (farming) and cottage industry (business or manufacturing in the home).
Celebrated
He inspired Keynesian economics — arguably the 20th century’s most important economic school. He argued governments should invest to boost employment.
Shorten
Keynes, who worked in the early-mid 20th century, said the working week would be just 15 hours by 2030.
Luddites
An early 19th century English group who smashed machines, burnt factories and mills and even killed their owners.

Subjects

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