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We Need To Talk About Tomorrow's World

02/09/2016 16:34 | Updated 02 September 2016
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Every time I visit my local supermarket I see a minor change, maybe not noticeable to many, but definitely there. What started with a few automatic tills at one end of the aisles has grown to over half the store in length. This presumably means every time I visit less people are employed at the supermarket.

For me this is the most graphic representation of not just where our economy is changing now but how it will develop over the next 20 years, with the most pessimistic estimates claiming that half of all jobs could be lost to automation and computerisation, representing the biggest economic policy challenge in a generation. So why isn't our new Prime Minister talking about it?

Concerns about automation aren't a new phenomenon. For as long as there have been technological innovations to ease the burden of physical labour, there have also been dire warnings about the impact on jobs.

However, while the short-term impact of early automation was severe enough to lead to the "Luddite" riots of the early 1800s, in the main, the dire predictions of what John Maynard Keynes termed, "technological unemployment" have proven unfounded. In the long-run, technological innovation has always delivered more employment opportunities to the economy than it has taken away. But unlike previous waves of industrial progress, the new wave of automation threatens jobs across the entire spectrum at a pace that may be impossible to keep up with.

Studies by the likes of Deloitte predict 2.1m jobs in wholesale and retail have a high chance of being automated in the next 20 years and another 1.5m could be replaced in transport and storage in the same period. The growth in jobs in these sectors in recent years in these areas now looks like being dramatically reversed and has masked a continual decline in manufacturing which by 2014 represented just 8% of the total workforce.

It isn't just the obvious jobs that are at risk, professions are under attack too as we have seen a whole raft of new legal tools have been launched, automating functions which were once the preserve of well-paid clerks and paralegals.

Further analysis by Deloitte has found that the UK has already lost 31,000 jobs in the legal sector to automation, with a further 114,000 set to go in the next 20 years. This will be a pattern repeated across most of the professions, further limiting opportunity for millions.

Change is already beginning to happen all around us at a frightening pace and so the question that we face is whether we can turn what is the biggest industrial policy challenge that we face into an opportunity. Next week Parliament is holding a debate entitled the "fourth industrial revolution" which calls on the Government to keep the country at the forefront of new technological developments.

In the past year alone, Amazon has won approval from the Government to test delivery by drones and George Osborne brought forward the testing of driverless HGVs , which shows the level of Government commitment to this. However, where Government is lacking is not on a strategy for encouraging these developments but an honest appraisal of whether enough new opportunities can be created to bridge what could be a gaping chasm in the job market and how we prepare our children for what will be a markedly different economy to that of today. These are questions that need to be answered sooner rather than later if we are to avoid an unemployment rates which would make the 1980s seem like a golden age.

Carrying on as we are will ultimately heap misery on millions and create an imbalanced and unsustainable economy where a very few at the top prosper. The majority will face a struggle just to survive and the insecurity many feel today will become chronic. This could lead to calls for a universal income or efforts to reduce the number of maximum working hours in a week, either of which could be a progressive response to the situation. There will no doubt be other ideas that emerge over time although I fear that things will need to get a whole lot worse before these ideas have much traction with the wider public and there is of course a danger that some solutions offered will be less than progressive.

Either way, we know the future is coming and it represents a big opportunity for the left to redefine what a successful economy and society looks like. I look forward to hearing some of the contributions from my Parliamentary colleagues next week and in the meantime will continue to use the staffed checkouts at the supermarket.

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