Rise of ro­bots could leave older work­ers out in the cold

Peo­ple in their 50s, 60s and 70s will likely be the hard­est hit in a com­ing au­to­ma­tion rev­o­lu­tion, re­ports Robin Pag­na­menta ‘You’re not go­ing to build a magic job at the age of 65. You’ve got to be pre­pared to work more flex­i­bly, be ed­u­cated, up­skill your

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

It was Win­ston Churchill who is cred­ited with the phrase: “Never let a good cri­sis go to waste.” It’s an apho­rism pro­fes­sors An­drew Scott and Lynda Grat­ton would prob­a­bly agree with. The two aca­demics from the Lon­don Busi­ness School are among the world’s lead­ing busi­ness thinkers. They are also the au­thors of a new book – The New

Long Life – who have been writ­ing and teach­ing for years about the way emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies like robotics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, as well as big de­mo­graphic shifts in­clud­ing an age­ing pop­u­la­tion, are poised to trans­form the fu­ture of work.

In the space of just a few months, many of their bold­est pre­dic­tions seem to be tak­ing shape more quickly than they had ever imag­ined.

“Covid-19 has ac­cel­er­ated many trends,” says Lynda Grat­ton, a for­mer BA ex­ec­u­tive who ad­vises Ja­pan’s gov­ern­ment and many big com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Tata, Sap and BT about how to pre­pare for the fu­ture.

With the UK now fac­ing a pro­longed re­ces­sion and a big spike ex­pected in un­em­ploy­ment in Oc­to­ber when the fur­lough scheme ends, com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als are think­ing hard about how to pre­pare for what are likely to be a tough few years.

One in­evitable out­come is likely to be a dra­matic spurt in the num­ber of un­em­ployed older peo­ple in their 50s or 60s who tend to face par­tic­u­lar challenges get­ting back into work.

“Over the next few years, we are go­ing to see a wave of au­to­ma­tion, as firms try to cut costs,” says An­drew Scott, an ex­pert on the eco­nomics of longevity who has taught at Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity and the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics.

“Tech­nol­ogy, AI and robotics are go­ing to dis­rupt the labour mar­ket. It will de­stroy jobs and cre­ate jobs and it will change the skills that you need.”

This was al­ready hap­pen­ing but the pan­demic has has­tened it. How should gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try re­spond?

While much of the fo­cus has been on the plight of younger peo­ple strug­gling to se­cure work fol­low­ing the pan­demic, his­tor­i­cally they have found it eas­ier to re­train and pur­sue other op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Older work­ers, on the other hand, may strug­gle to re­turn to a per­ma­nent job at all. “We will see a lot of peo­ple who lose their job in their 50s and we know that there is go­ing to be high un­em­ploy­ment for a while,” says Scott.

“It’s hard to get a job if you’re old be­cause of age dis­crim­i­na­tion … So what you will see is more growth of the gig econ­omy and free­lance, be­cause peo­ple want to earn but they’re go­ing strug­gle to get full-time jobs.”

For some, this vi­sion of a grow­ing army of el­derly Bri­tish gig work­ers fran­ti­cally hus­tling their way into their 70s and beyond to make ends meet may not be par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing.

Ei­ther way, big so­cial changes are on the way that we need to pre­pare for now – with ur­gency, he says.

A crit­i­cal plank will be to pro­vide more and bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion and skills train­ing – not just for the young – but for peo­ple through­out the du­ra­tion of their lives so they can re­main eco­nom­i­cally pro­duc­tive.

“Ed­u­ca­tion has to be key,” he says. “We are go­ing to have to go to life­long learn­ing – and that’s huge be­cause, just as the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion pro­vided ed­u­ca­tion to ev­ery­one un­der 12, 14 and then even­tu­ally 18, we now have to think about how we do that across life.”

Scott be­lieves that it’s worth study­ing what hap­pened in the

19th century, when Bri­tain was con­vulsed by the tech­nolo­gies un­leashed by the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, which in turn led to big so­cial changes.

“When the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion hap­pened, the first phase was eco­nomic progress based on tan­gi­ble progress. So lots of so­cial strains and in­di­vid­ual wel­fare and wages fall­ing.

There was a dis­lo­ca­tion, but then so­ci­ety sort of kicked in and said: ‘Well, how can we make this work for us?’. And I think we’re keen for that to hap­pen straight away in how we deal with longer lives and tech­nol­ogy.”

As back then, gov­ern­ment has a big role to play.

“We see a mas­sive growth in in­sti­tu­tions pro­vid­ing that train­ing. We think of ed­u­ca­tion as not some­thing to do with the be­gin­ning of your life but some­thing to craft right through.”

There are al­ready nearly 12 mil­lion peo­ple aged 65 and above in the UK of which 5.4m peo­ple are aged over 75 and 1.6m are aged over 85.

But within 20 years, the num­ber of those aged 65 and over will in­crease by 44pc, mean­ing that by 2037, one in four of the pop­u­la­tion will be over 65.

That is lead­ing to the emer­gence of a whole new so­cial strata of older yet ac­tive peo­ple who re­main healthy and in many cases wish to and need to con­tinue work­ing well beyond the tra­di­tional re­tire­ment age.

It’s possible to draw par­al­lels with the rise of other eco­nom­i­cally ac­tive so­cial groups in pre­vi­ous decades, such as teenagers and pen­sion­ers in the mid-20th century.

“How we struc­ture life is a so­cial con­ven­tion,” he says, adding that the rise of a new class of age­ing work­ers brings great challenges to pro­vide them with jobs, ed­u­ca­tion and ser­vices but also op­por­tu­ni­ties to build busi­nesses and economies based on their ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge and ex­per­tise.

“That is go­ing to be a big adap­ta­tion be­cause it changes the map of life. It changes ed­u­ca­tion, work re­la­tion­ships … all sorts of things.”

The shift to­wards work­ing un­til later in life also re­quires per­sonal prepa­ra­tion, adds Grat­ton.

“If you want to work un­til you’re 70, you need to start pre­par­ing for that in your mid-life. You’re not go­ing to build a magic job at the age of 65. You’ve got to be pre­pared to work more flex­i­bly, be ed­u­cated, up­skill your­self.”

Of course, there are lots of other ways in which Covid-19 is chang­ing the way we work. Per­haps the most glar­ing has been the gi­ant ex­per­i­ment in home work­ing, fu­elled by new tech­nol­ogy, which has had a pro­found ef­fect on the way many busi­nesses are think­ing about the fu­ture.

Grat­ton be­lieves that the jury is still out over the long-term im­pact and how many peo­ple want to work at home for­ever. Some do but many do not – es­pe­cially younger work­ers who may live in shared ac­com­mo­da­tion and who ap­pre­ci­ate the op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn, net­work and meet peo­ple in an of­fice.

A more likely long-term out­come is the shift to­wards a hy­brid model where em­ploy­ees have greater flex­i­bil­ity to choose which days they work at home or in an of­fice.

Ei­ther way, there are big im­pli­ca­tions that flow from that – from a slump in de­mand for city cen­tre of­fice space to the po­ten­tial re­gen­er­a­tion of long ne­glected pro­vin­cial towns and sub­urbs where peo­ple may in­creas­ingly choose to live and work from home.

That means a trend to­wards greater de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity away from big busi­ness hubs like Lon­don and into the re­gions.

Again, this is a trend that was al­ready un­der way – and a key plank of Tory “lev­el­ling up” pol­icy in the party’s last elec­tion man­i­festo – but Covid-19 could ac­cel­er­ate and ex­tend it.

“I think that could be a real pos­i­tive,” says Scott. “We might start see­ing the growth of more large pro­vin­cial towns, [and] a shift away from glob­al­i­sa­tion per­haps more to­wards the re­gions.”

Prof Lynda Grat­ton, right, from the Lon­don Busi­ness School, says life­long learn­ing is the key to en­sur­ing the older gen­er­a­tion have a fu­ture in the work­place. Above, ro­bots pack lunch boxes in Ja­pan

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