By Robert Hickson 24/10/2017

Not the party, the activity.

Labour day in New Zealand is when a few remember and (mostly) celebrate the improvements in working conditions over time, while many just enjoy a day off. However, there has been much angst recently that, thanks to increasing automation, many of us will soon not have the experience of paid employment.

Reflecting what seems to be a common view, the US’s Pew Research Center report on automation notes that respondents while not too worried that their own job is at risk are concerned overall about the effect of automation on jobs.

Is this likely to become reality, or is it, as Nesta suggests, “false alarmism“?

You can pick your opinion pieces to support whatever view you adhere to.

The journal Nature has just published a set of commentaries on the subject that are not very satisfying. They are just what you see in the opinion pages of newspapers, so I’m not sure why they are included in the august Nature.

Everyone has their own frame of reference. Goldin prefers to refer back to the 15th century renaissance. Allen looks at the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries and presents comparisons of productivity and wages. While Anthes looks at the digital revolution and the gig economy.

A better researched view is proposed by the historian Carlota Perez, who fits the current technological developments into a broader pattern of technological change. Though its predictive power is weakened since it assumes governments and others behave as they have done previously. And as with all such approaches, it takes the high level view that society as a whole will likely benefit over the longer term.

I found the New Yorker’s recent article, despite its cheesy title, on the impacts on automation more enlightening since it focuses on individuals and specific jobs.


Predicting the impacts of automation

While some reports confidently predict that 10 million jobs are at risk, thankfully we are starting to see a shift away from this hysteria. Such predictions typically reuse or update Frey & Osborne’s 2013 study about the percentage of jobs that will be automated. (I noted this weakness a couple of years ago).

In a detailed paper Bessen examines how computer automation affects jobs. He concludes that occupations that use computers tend to do well. Historically, the total number of jobs has not changed, but the introduction of computers (and other corporate decisions) has led to displacement of some jobs and tasks. These may have been fully automated, or shifted elsewhere (transfered from one place in the organisation to another, or outsourced).

Less analytically, Wired magazine also notes that there is no evidence that automation over the last few decades has resulted in increased unemployment . They didn’t look at pay levels or the quality of jobs though. And they succumb to extrapolating from the past to predict the future.

Nesta and the Oxford Martin School have undertaken a much more diligent job, looking at the future of skills. They note that one of the few jobs to have disappeared entirely in the last century was elevator attendant. They model how employment may change over the next 15 years and what skills are likely to be important.

You can disagree with some of the new jobs that they predict, but I like their approach of giving more attention to new opportunities.

Perez writes about the world being on the threshold of a potential “golden age” as digital technologies mature. That still seems hard to grasp if we just focus on what may be lost. She advocates for a global rather than a national response to automation – a new Marshall-style plan.

As the Nesta report notes, doom-like predictions about “the rise of the robots” influences government and private sector decision-making, so more sophisticated analyses, and discussions, are urgently needed before we jump to “solutions” such as universal basic incomes and “robot taxes”.

“… as so often before in human history, we will probably make the most profound decisions on the basis of myopic short-term considerations.” Harari


What can be done?

Rather than trying to decide what particular jobs will be needed in the future, the Nesta report suggests a focus on developing the following five skills:

  • Judgment and decision making: Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.
  • Fluency of ideas: The ability to come up with a number of ideas about a topic (the number of ideas is important, not their quality, correctness, or creativity).
  • Active learning: Selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.
  • Learning strategies: Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Originality: The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.


We also need to have training to develop practical skills, so we aren’t all just theoreticians.

New Zealand is potentially well placed to take advantage of this approach. If we are able to move away from the emphasis on testing and standardisation at schools. The World Economic Forum’s human capital report ranks New Zealand highly in making good use of our “human capital” – the knowledge and skills we develop for, and use in, the work force.

I’ve mentioned before that mind set matters. That will have a big influence not only on how we adapt to the future, but how we shape it through our public debates and discussions. What is the value we place on work, beyond just economic benefits?

Will we welcome a future labour day where we get the opportunity one day a year to do some paid work?


Featured image by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash