If robots are the future workforce, are humans the past?

Robot handshake
By David Wood, ICAS Executive Director, Policy Leadership

16 March 2017

At the end of 2016, 32 million people were in employment in the UK. 

Of this, nearly 5 million were self-employed or part of the growing “gig economy”, 8.6 million were working on a part-time basis, and nearly 1.7 million employed on a temporary basis. Over 1.5 million people were unemployed.

How this will change

Iain Wright, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, on launching its inquiry on the future world of work and rights of workers said:

“The nature of work is undoubtedly changing. It will change further with growing use of technology and a spreading of automation across the economy. This might provide flexibility and choice for some people, but unleash insecurity and squeezed working conditions for others. With these economic and technological changes shaking up the world of work, it’s vitally important that workers are protected..."

In the longer term, many jobs will be replaced by automation.  While there will be new jobs in innovation and programming, on balance automation is likely to lead to fewer jobs.  How do we react to this?  Is it really just a case of ensuring that the “workers are protected”?

There are bigger societal issues at stake.

What if only half the population have jobs, and the other half have no chance of ever getting a job.  What would be the impact of huge inequality between the haves and the have-nots?  Science fiction scenarios may become science fact, as social disruption, crime, violence, civil unrest and even war come to a town near you.

There are bigger societal issues at stake.

How should we try and head off these nightmare scenarios?  We could share the work around; many of us might like to move to a three-day week. But what if that comes with a corresponding 40% drop in salary? 

Should we cap the working week to four days, then three? How would you make that transition?  Do we let the innovators and programmers work longer while the rest of us lose hours and salaries or do we apply the same reduction to everyone at the same time?

In the last few weeks, Bill Gates and others have questioned whether Governments should tax robots as well as employee wages. Whilst we should not wish to deter or penalise innovation, the stark fact may be that we just have to broaden the tax base if human employment falls significantly, simply to balance the books.

At some stage in the near future the Government will need a more fundamental inquiry into the impact of current workplace trends – not just on employment but also on society and how tax revenues can be maintained to provide the public services we all need.

The views expressed are David’s own.


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