Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey shot to public attention in 2013 when he and colleague Michael Osborne released research in which they predicted that 47% of jobs could be automated within the next decade or so. The research was arguably the first study that attempted to predict how technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics would impact the labor market.
The alarming nature of the statistic understandably triggered considerable discussion, with various other bodies, from the OECD to McKinsey producing similar research complete with their own predictions for the future of work.
Frey’s hypothesis is fleshed out in his recently published book The Technology Trap, in which he takes readers on a detailed exploration of the numerous technological disruptions that have emerged since the Industrial Revolution.
“While there are good reasons to be optimistic about the long run, such optimism is only possible if we successfully manage the short-term dynamics,” he writes. “People who lose out to automation will quite rationally oppose it, and if they do, the short-term effects cannot be seen in isolation from the long run.”
Adapting to change
Alas, while much of the 350 or so pages of the book provide an excellent analysis of past industrial revolutions, the technologies that emerged within them, and the way societies adapted to those changes, he provides a scant 15 pages to how society today can adapt to the changes he believes are looming large on the horizon.
At a time when there has been breathless exultation about the breadth and depth of technological change upon us, it seems that this would be the most interesting angle to explore, and indeed the various methods Frey proposes for supporting greater adaptability are genuinely interesting.
These include supporting mobility between regions with greater transport links, mobility vouchers and zoning changes to rectify a housing market that prices many people out, especially in popular urban areas where jobs are plentiful.
He also touches on the evident need to improve educational opportunities for people throughout their life so that they can develop the skills needed to move into new careers. Massive Open Online Courses get a brief mention, but early evidence suggests these are mainly used by the highly educated rather than perhaps those who could most benefit from the low cost, modular approach to learning they provide. Frey also talks about changes to licensing that create unnecessary barriers to various professions, and therefore prevent people moving between professions as quickly as they might.
Technology at Work
I was understandably curious therefore to see if Technology at Work 4.0 addressed this crucial area any better. Technology at Work is an annual analysis conducted by financial giant Citi and Oxford University’s Martin School. The series began in 2016, and sees Frey team up with experts both from Citi themselves and also from across industry, academia and government to explore the future of work.
Understandably, the latest report borrows heavily from The Technology Trap before exploring the situation as it is now in various industries and countries. As with Frey’s book however, the big area of interest for me is less around describing what is (or has been) as exploring how we can avoid the trap Frey so aptly describes has been fallen into by generation after generation, and help people to adapt to the inevitable changes wrought by new technology.
As with the book, this is not the emphasis of the report by any means, and just 5% of the paper is devoted to the topic, which is unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be found.
They explore the policy options available under seven main headings:
1. Changes to education, including greater early childhood education, higher levels of customized learning that aims at long-term success, with fresh thinking on how to make learning cost effective.
2. Changes to in-work training and employment support, including greater support for lifelong learning and wage insurance to compensate workers for accepting work with lower pay. Mobility support would also help people move to where jobs are.
3. Changes to industrial support, with a particular focus on boosting business dynamism via things such as stronger competition policies, better diffusion of technology and support for entrepreneurship.
4. Removal of various barriers to prosperity, and in particular to finding work, with areas such as licensing a particularly easy area to focus on.
5. Greater civic participation, by encouraging wider sections of society to vote and engage in other aspects of civic life.
6. More inclusive safety nets that help people to adapt, with a focus on guaranteeing a minimum income, but also increasing redistribution via means such as capital gains tax and wealth taxes.
7. Change in how we perceive work itself, with a reduction in working time mixed with greater flexibility that will allow us to enjoy the longevity premium proposed by people like London Business School’s Lynda Gratton.
The observant among you will see considerable crossover between these and the remedies proposed by Frey in his book, and that certainly appears to be the case. They also provide a relatively whistlestop tour of each recommendation rather than addressing some of the considerable hurdles associated with each.
Nonetheless, as The Four Futures of Work report from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce highlighted earlier this year, less than 30% of British politicians claim to have a strong grasp of the technological issues facing society today, either in terms of the technical issues themselves or the social factors that stem from them.
Given this low level of technical literacy among policy makers today, despite a seeming barrage of reports on the future of work in recent years, it is perhaps still warranted that The Technology Trap and Technology at Work 4.0 go over relatively old ground one more time. If some of the recommendations they outline get explored in more depth then it will certainly have been worth it.