The Anxiety Industry: Why we need to stop wringing our hands and get on with the business of the Future of Work

Aug 15, 2019

This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and reflects on discussions at OECD Forum 2019 in Paris. But it doesn't stop there – wherever you are, become a member of the global Forum Network community to comment below and continue the conversation!

The future of work has itself become an industry. The parade of conferences, reports and surveys points to the understandable anxieties facing millions of people in the face of automation, ageing and globalisation.

Commentators predict big job cuts, ever-shorter job tenure, more project-based working and greater insecurity. They may be right. But one striking aspect of these forecasts is that they are almost identical to the ones that were made by futurists ever since the 1960s, when magazine features on the rise of the robots became a staple. Those forecasts turned out to be almost entirely wrong. Employment levels often rose rather than falling; job tenure remained roughly constant. But these inconvenient facts did little to temper the confidence of the forecasters then or now.

Of course, it’s possible that this time will be different. But I suspect we still haven’t quite got the mental pictures of what lies ahead right, nor what needs to be done.

First, we need to remember that labour markets change remorselessly, but quite slowly. Many go wrong by wildly exaggerating just how fast, to take two examples, driverless cars will put taxis out of business or doctors will be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI) diagnostics. They’re not helped by widely circulated factoids – such as that the majority of jobs that children will do don’t exist today, or that one in ten jobs disappears every year – that don’t stand up to a minute’s analysis.

Second, and part of the reason for the errors, is that jobs are hybrids – although automation may replace parts of many if not most jobs, they won’t replace all of them. Even truck drivers may be needed for a long time to come on parts of the journeys taken by big lorries, even as convoys of robotrucks take over parts of the motorways. Nesta’s work with Oxford University and Pearson tried to get a more nuanced picture by breaking jobs into skills components and showing that change within jobs is likely to be more important than the complete destruction of jobs.

Third, technology has counterintuitive effects largely missed by the futurists. This has been clear throughout the modern period. As some tasks are industrialised and then automated, this shifts demand towards more labour intensive, less technologically intensive roles. A more digitised economy creates more jobs for bartenders, recreational therapists and teachers than it does new jobs for virtual reality programmers. Again, our analysis of digital skills and jobs shows that as many digitally intensive jobs are likely to shrink as to rise, as automation hits. Coding is a case in point, with many coding jobs highly likely to be automated.

So where should we direct our efforts? In my view the key is to put in place the building blocks that will help people better navigate their way through uncertain times.

"Schools need to shift their content and their style towards what look highly likely to be rising areas of demand: judgement, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration"
Photo by La-Rel Easter on Unsplash

Schools need to shift their content and their style towards what look highly likely to be rising areas of demand: judgement, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration. These should be at the core of the curriculum, and supported as much by project-based working in the real world as by traditional classroom pedagogy (or for that matter its AI-enabled variants). The OECD has helpfully signalled the importance of these shifts.

More generally we need public policy to promote uses of technology that enhance people rather than just replace them. The Edtech fund Nesta is running with the UK government is a good example: it’s there to commission uses of AI that support teachers in practical tasks like assessment, marking essays or timetable management.

"We need to redirect some of the energy going into either empty futurism or hand-wringing anxiety towards practical action"

Then governments need to help orchestrate much smarter tools to help people navigate. At Nesta we have shown beta versions of what we call Open Jobs platforms, that bring together data on current jobs vacancies, skills requirements and pay levels; forecasts on which jobs are likely to grow and shrink; mapping of skills provision; and apps that make it easy for 15- or 50-year-olds to use these to guide their choices. We call this a “Google maps for jobs and careers” – a tool to help people know how to get from where they are to where they want to be. Several countries are moving in this direction, with Sweden probably in the lead.

We will then need policy shifts to give people entitlements to learn and relearn (of the kinds that Singapore and France have introduced), and more comprehensive offline and online provision.

In short we need to redirect some of the energy going into either empty futurism or hand-wringing anxiety towards practical action. The next few years will be difficult for many. But fatalism, glib generalisations and false futurism help no one.

Related Topics

Future of Education & Skills New Jobs & OccupationsArtificial IntelligenceOECD Forum 2019

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

Banner image: Max Bender on Unsplash

Geoff Mulgan


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