6 June 2019

Why the future of work is about much more than automation and AI


The future of work debate majors on productivity and automation – trying to figure out how to shape the new types of jobs we’re all likely to have in the future. This conversation almost always ends up assuring us that there will be good jobs for highly skilled people. Even the retraining debate centres on giving relatively small numbers of people advanced skills like coding or data analysis, so they can get back into employment once they’ve lost their positions to our ever advancing economy.

But how do you access LinkedIn or Indeed if you don’t have the skills, or access, to get online? What if you’ve never seen an email from a Nigerian prince and don’t know basic cyber-security skills, so can’t tell these emails are scams? How would you live in our increasingly digital society?

It sounds unlikely – you probably don’t know someone who would admit to not owning a computer or not knowing how to safely use their smartphone. But there are 11.9 million people in the UK who don’t have essential digital skills. And our research shows that, at current rates of progress, by 2028 there will still be 6.9 million people in the UK – 12 per cent of the population – without these skills.

The future of work debate often misses the point that we risk facing an increasing stratification of UK society. Its discourse talks a lot about technology – but often fails to recognise that it’s about people. Digital is amazing, life-enhancing and beneficial – but as with so many other things, it compounds inequality. People are already being locked out of good jobs – and trapped in bad jobs – by digital inequality.

Increasingly, people are worried about their job prospects – and the most vulnerable are the most exposed. Recent research from the Institute for the Future of Work and Opinium shows that worker optimism has fallen. A fifth (22 per cent) of workers have become more pessimistic about their career prospects than last year. With jobs expected to be displaced as a result of automation, it is worrying that 60 per cent think it would be difficult to find a new job if they lost their current one.

Working age adults in households in the poorest socio-economic groups are three times more likely to be non-internet users. At Good Things Foundation, we support excluded people to become digitally able and active. Digital skills can help people to become more productive, and access  increased economic opportunity. Crucially, it also increases social inclusion.

We know from our work with our network of local partners across the country that being digitally connected also helps people to connect with their communities offline and to participate more fully in society. We see people who have no hope, and who feel they have been left behind – and through digital they can reconnect with those around them, find meaningful work, learn more about what interests them and take charge of their lives.

To create a successful economy and society, the future of work must empower everyone – and particularly the most vulnerable. People who are empowered have the confidence, self-efficacy, adaptability, and the joy of learning to be resilient to changes that may occur in the future.

And though it’s going to take decades to really shift social mobility and level the playing field, digital inclusion is something we can work on now. It can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives in the short term, as well as the long term.

People who lack good work and who can benefit the most from lifelong learning aren’t the people who demand it. Nor do they turn up when it’s provided. We need to be innovative in the pathways we’re offering to gaining the skills, so people can participate in our increasingly digital society.

In a world where technology is everywhere in our lives, and something we all depend on, it’s unacceptable that so many people are already being excluded from the conversation about the future of work.

The future of work is about more than just robots and AI. To create an inclusive economy, we need to shift the conversation to talk about social and digital inclusion too – this is the key to a better future, and good work for everyone.

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Helen Milner is chief executive of Good Things Foundation, one of the UK's leading digital inclusion charities.