Future of work, tech and learning


I had the honour of speaking on a panel at the World Futures Forum on Tuesday 24th September. The opening keynote by Futurist Matthew Griffin introduced a mind-boggling number of emerging technologies between now and 2080, see the fascinating “codex“.

As the opening question on the panel session chaired by Griffin he asked me “are we prepared for the future? Is education preparing our learners for the future?” and I said something like …

No! When have we ever been prepared for the future? I’m not sure it’s the main purpose of education to produce the future workforce. I think there’s a set of issues around what we learn and how we learn. We don’t know exactly what we need to learn but I don’t think we should throw away the way we teach existing disciplines. We still need deep specialists in STEM. But we need them to collaborate in the workplace with other deep specialists: that’s where a lot of innovation comes from. We need “soft” skills of the human touch, of empathy, of ethical thinking: human skills. It’s not just about STEM and human skills though. Many of these emerging technologies feel like sci-fi. I read a lot of sci-fi. Often sci-fi is dystopian. We need historians and sociologists and philosophers too, to avoid these technologies leading us to bad futures.

It was probably more garbled than that, but that’s the gist.

Human skills was a recurrent theme of the day: adaptability, collaboration, empathy, problem solving, communication etc. There were some really good inputs about how to describe, develop and promote those skills. There was a strong sense of needing to actively develop and evidence these skills, described well by Tom Ravenscroft . There were calls from Laura Overton to redesign the way we support learning in the workplace.

Lord Jim Knight focussed on his considerable expertise around schools and made an interesting observation that “in employability conversations employers often say urgent and radical change is needed. Until it’s their own children they’re thinking about”. He called for education to do as much for wellbeing as for skills, and he railed against the over-testing in primary schools. Amen.

I feel strangely unpanicked about the idea that my children will have to retrain several times for the workforce of the future. Perhaps that’s because I never trained for a “career”. I did philosophy and literature and then followed my nose, finding myself into technology in education. The only job title a careers teacher would recognise was “bookseller” and that was early on my path. I’ve had about eight employers in my 20 years of full time work. Following my nose has served me well so it doesn’t scare me that my kids might have to do the same.

The words “work”, “jobs” and “careers” were used somewhat interchangeably today and I am realising that masks something. I have friends who are experts in “careers” and they would be the first to say that work ≠ job ≠ career. What does that unmask? Not all work is paid. Not all jobs are careers or jobs for life. Not all work pays fairly. Also, importantly, not all work is good.

Taking each point in turn …

Not all work is paid

Economists would tell you that unpaid work is a significant factor in any economy. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez describes the way that work gets done in societies. Work like cooking, cleaning, childcare and caring for the sick and elderly is often unpaid, and it is overwhelmingly done by women.

Actually there is a historic pattern that when unpaid work becomes paid work, more men start doing it. So the idea that work I used to do is being done by someone else is not a new idea. It’s just that usually it doesn’t happen to men. And this time its automation “stealing” the “jobs”.

On a different angle, Matthew Taylor from the RSA made a very salient point that the automation narrative is politically dangerous. Some sociologists have surveyed that 40% of people feel like the system of our current society should be smashed, that there are people who want chaos. He suggested we should not feed that fire by threatening loss of work to automation.

Not all jobs are careers or jobs for life

Criado-Perez documents that the majority of the part time workforce is female. Juggling multiple work roles, both paid and unpaid, is common in many cultures.

When people bemoan that our children cannot expect a job for life, I reflect that I never expected a job for life. The sectors of our economy where people had jobs for life may be a mixture of “professions” such as accountants, lawyers and engineers, and unionised skilled labour such as manufacturing, steel, construction etc. I have a strong suspicion that the data would show that for the decades these were secure jobs for life they were largely male.

Not all work pays fairly

It doesn’t take long to recognise that some of the jobs that are most materially important to society are the lowest paid. Where would we be without people to empty bins, pick crops, care for the elderly, look after our kids. The importance of this work is not correlated to the importance. So even when work is paid, it is paid according to what the worker will accept from what the employer will pay. Is it a coincidence that these lowest paid jobs are more likely to be done by immigrants, when they are the lowest paid? And yet some of these lowest paid jobs are the most human, and the least likely to be automated.

Not all work is good

Companies that make stuff and sell stuff can make profit and therefore can afford to create jobs and pay people. As long as there are people to buy the stuff, there can be work to make the stuff. And yet we know that some of this stuff is bad for people, health and the planet. Junk food, cigarettes, plastic goods, petrol cars, weapons. But these industries employ huge numbers of people and therefore there are vested interests in retaining those jobs even if the overall impact of the work they do is detrimental to our future.

To tackle the climate crisis we need to pivot to a low growth economy. Reducing steel manufacture, fossil fuel-based industries, petrol/diesel cars, car ownership, air travel, food packaging, food wastage … this will all mean a loss of jobs. But that shouldn’t stop it happening. Incidentally this is also why the idea of a red-green new deal needs exploring seriously. The UK Labour Party and its Trade Union partners need to navigate the opportunity to rethink job security in the light of a low growth green economy.

Putting all this together … universal basic income is beginning to sound like a smart way of mitigating the effects of adjusting to a low growth economy, of mitigating the loss of work to automation enabling part-time work. This would also have the benefit of valuing unpaid work and enabling lifelong learning. I’ve been reading about the history of UBI and it’s a case study of an idea that has been in and out of fashion, on both the left and the right. It’s time has come.

To come back to the emerging technologies question, Matthew Taylor pointed out that along with technologies being hard to predict, even more so are the human behaviours and cultural factors in the use of technologies. On top of that we have the ways in which the developers and suppliers of technologies have to find business cases to underpin their endeavours. Much of the consumer tech breakthroughs of the last twenty years have been catalysed through the disruption and invention of business cases.

We shouldn’t pursue every new technology just because we can. It has to be useful and ethical. The climate emergency should make us prioritise those developments that will help us tackle our biggest crisis. Technology should not be driven by what consumers want but by what humans need. That’s why we need social scientists and humanists deeply engaged with emerging technologies: and we need diverse and critical voices to shape our global priorities.

I found the event really thought-provoking and I’m very grateful to Matthew Griffin and the organising team for the invite. There is a world of thinking out there about the future of work, tech and learning. I think I’ll start with the RSA Future of Work, put on my science fiction far-future goggles for the emerging technologies codex and I’ll keep a special eye out for gender analysis in these spaces.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s