The review into modern employment will continue despite the coming election and our new RSA Radio podcast, exploring the big debates on the changes in work, kicks off by looking at what we should do about job automation.
It’s been a rather difficult 48 hours. Not only did Theresa May’s decision to call an election make me look a chump to all the people I had confidently told that she would do no such thing, but the announcement cast doubt over the Modern Employment Review I am chairing for the Prime Minister.
Yesterday the Review roadshow was in Newcastle talking to employers, trade unions, campaigners and academics; was this another stage on our journey of discovery or our swansong?
To my relief we now have confirmation that the Review will continue and report – as planned – to a newly elected Government in June (assuming that Government wants to hear from us). As civil servants will be working on the Review and we soon move into official ‘purdah’ we will need to keep our profile low, but this is timely as the work of developing detailed policy recommendations and of report writing starts now.
Being embroiled in process issues like this can take attention away from substantive questions. So it was great this morning to run in to work listening to the first of our four RSA Radio programmes on the future of work.
In this episode of 'Work Shift' I sat down with Michael Osborne, Ryan Avent and Judy Wajcman and asked them to give me their take on the impact of automation on the labour market and on how we should respond. It’s always slightly odd to listen to myself, but fortunately our guests were so interesting I didn’t get too distracted by my little mistakes as Chair. Hopefully, the job of radio host won’t be displaced by a robot for a while yet.
In our discussion Michael Osborne, stuck by his estimate that 47 per cent of US occupations are at risk of being automated, citing recent advances as corroboration including: the victory of Google Deepmind’s AI over Lee Sedol, the world champion of Go , Uber’s trials of self-driving cars (which may face a few hurdles before they are proven viable and safe) and Amazon’s convenience store with no checkout assistants (which could be on their way to London soon).
Ryan Avent (who gave an excellent talk based on his book The Wealth of Humans at The RSA back in October 2016) explains how automation doesn’t cause mass joblessness but a more gradual process of shuffling and competition for the remaining work, suppressing wages and resulting in a proliferation of low productivity menial jobs.
Judy Wajcman provided a refreshingly circumspect perspective in contrast to recent automation handwringing but all the panellists agreed something needed to be done about the distributional consequences of changes in technology and work and that a basic income could be a part of the solution. Judy Wajcman proposed a shorter working week to re-distribute work from the overworked to the un-and-under-employed. But she also made the point that rather than just worrying about its unintended effects we should be designing technologies to deal with social problems. The RSA is looking at how government can do exactly that through our partnership with UCL’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose exploring how governments can set directions for innovation and growth to fulfil social missions.
In the next episode RSA Research Director Anthony Painter is joined by guests to explore the principles and rationale behind a basic income and to debate about its possible effects.
We are aiming to increase the output of RSA Radio steadily in the next year or so. If you or your organisation has ideas for programmes that would pick up on important RSA themes and engage a broad range of thoughtful listeners we’re keen to hear them.
In the meantime make sure you subscribe to the RSA Radio podcast:
Fabian Wallace-Stephens sets out key findings and recommendations from our report on how the dual impacts of Covid-19 and technological change and could reshape the labour market.
What does the future of work hold for us as we enter a troubling and turbulent 2020? Mass automation and unemployment – or a brave new techno-utopia?