• Opinion
  • June 10, 2019
  • 7 minutes
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The future of work: Why robots won’t steal your government job

Opinion: There’s nothing automatic about automation

This article was written by Stephen Clarke, Senior Economic Analyst at the Resolution Foundation. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.


In late March the ONS detailed the occupations in the UK at most risk of being automated.

They concluded that, on average, 46% of jobs were at risk. However, this figure masked big differences across occupations. Just 18% of medical practitioner jobs are deemed to be at risk from automation, whereas 73% of waiter jobs are.

In a previous article for Apolitical Robbie Tilleard and Johannes Lohmann drew attention to the fact that around half of national government jobs (and a similar share of local government jobs) are at risk.

Does this mean that one-in-two civil servants may be redundant in future?

Jobs under pressure

It may seem strange that there has been so much discussion about automation and the jobs at risk from technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, at the same time as the UK has record high employment and unemployment is at a 44-year low.

At the same time productivity has stagnated for a decade — the latest figures show that output per hour worked fell for the third successive quarter at the beginning of 2019, the first time this has happened since 2013. You might be justified in thinking that we need a bit more artificial intelligence and a few more robots.

In some respects the public appears to agree. The vast majority of people who responded to a YouGov survey carried out for the Fabian Society and Community stated that they did not think that their job was at threat from automation. However there was a concerned minority — 37% felt that automation will have a negative effect on their jobs, and 23% felt their jobs would disappear completely.

The decline of secretaries and travel agents

Some of these people are likely to be in the occupations most at risk. Some may even have already got a glimpse of the technology that could replace them – like the airline staff warned that self-boarding technology may soon make their job obsolete. So, rather than focusing on the estimates of the number of jobs at risk in future (particularly given the range of estimates out there), we should be doing more to understand what jobs have been replaced over time, and what this could tell us about the future.

We also need to remember that it’s not just technology that can change the world of work

Recent research by the Resolution Foundation analysed occupational change over the last four decades. It found that although the 1980s and 1990s saw something of the creation of an “hourglass” labour market – where both low and high paying occupations grew but mid-paid ones shrank – the last two decades have mostly been characterised by occupational upgrading, with higher paid roles accounting for the majority of the new jobs created.

This is not to say that some occupations were not made redundant by technology – there are today far fewer assembly line workers, secretaries, and travel agents. But the loss of such activities was more than made up for by an increase in other roles, the majority of which have been higher-paying.

Less future-gazing, more support

Some have suggested that the future may be different and that advances in technology mean that many higher-paid, higher-skilled roles will soon be under threat: AI systems can now supposedly diagnose lung and heart cancer more accurately than doctors.

However, recent data suggests remarkably little change; most of the same occupations that were expanding or contracting between 2001 and 2007 have still been expanding or contracting over the last few years. Furthermore it would appear that it is the same workers that are likely to affected; workers with higher levels of education are still much less likely to be in a shrinking occupation.

What this means is that we should perhaps be doing less future-gazing and more to support those groups that history tells us will be most affected by technological change.

Both public and private sector employers need to do more to boost the skills of less-qualified staff. As Tilleard and Lohmann argue, employers need to include workers in decisions around technology, not just impose it on them.

They are right to argue that, as a major employer, the government should set the standard. But the government can also help by directing more resources towards those young people who do not go to university.

Policies eliminate more jobs than robots

We also need to remember that it’s not just technology that can change the world of work.

Workers are bearing more risk than they have in the past — the demise of collective bargaining means that more people are responsible for negotiating their own pay, while the decline in defined benefit pensions means that savings risks are borne by the workforce, and the welfare state offers less insurance against unemployment than it used to.

Technological change is not some inevitable force and public policy can shape how it impacts the labour market. If you want a salutary reminder of this it is worth remembering that public sector employment has been reduced by over a million in the past decade — because of government policy, not the rise of the robots. — Stephen Clarke

(Photo credit: Unsplash)

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