The nonsense about robots taking your job risks a culture of digital fear

“300,000 jobs at high risk of automation”; “Robots have put 1.3 million Londoners’ jobs at risk”; “Robots could take 35% of UK jobs in the next 20 years, says new study” – these were just three of the hyperbolic headlines that accompanied a frenzy of media coverage last week following a BBC Panorama programme asking “Could a robot do my job?”.

Most of those numbers came from research by Deloitte, featured in the BBC show, which analysed employment statistics to determine which jobs are most at risk from the increasing pace of technology automation. Throw in a few references to robots and artificial intelligence and you get a nicely hyped up scare story about how technology is going to devastate the jobs market. If you’re not scared yet, you should be, apparently.

Of course it’s all nonsense. That Deloitte report actually concluded that the number of jobs with a low risk of automation is increasing faster than jobs being replaced by automated processes across all regions of the UK. Around 800,000 “high-risk” jobs have been replaced since 2001, but 3.5 million jobs at low risk of automation have been created.

“IT creating millions of jobs” is, for some reason, less of an interesting headline, and has been less of an interesting headline for as long as the IT industry has existed. Tech has been presented as the great jobs killer for decades, despite creating millions of jobs. We should be used to it by now.

But there is a real danger that such hyperbolic reporting creates a culture of fear around technology, one that will chime with a lot of people already struggling to cope with the pace of change in the digital revolution.

From the invention of the printing press, to the industrial revolution, to the current silicon age, technology has removed the need for jobs that are typically low-skilled, administrative or bureaucratic. It’s often pointed out that the jobs created are high-skilled, higher income jobs, and that these technological elites are benefiting while low-earning socio-economic groups suffer. That’s an easy accusation to make but it’s equally nonsense. Jobs are created at every level of employment – it just means that work that is often considered menial gets done by machines instead. Surely that’s a good thing.

The critical point here is that this is not a jobs issue, but a training issue. If we can identify the sort of jobs likely to be automated – and we can – government and industry must target those workers for training in the new skills they will need. This has to happen before their jobs go, not after – that’s something the UK has never been good at doing.

We have learned from past technological change what happens to old jobs, and still we face shortages for new skills. It’s not about protecting old jobs and industries but nurturing new ones. We know the challenge ahead – what’s needed is leadership that prepares the workforce to be ready for the new job opportunities to come.

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