Thoughts on the RSA’s “Jobs Summit”

A couple of weeks ago I went to the RSA’s “jobs summit” (audio of all sessions available). It was a fascinating day: over three sessions, a variety of the great and the good – a couple of politicians (one Labour – David Miliband – and one Tory – David Willetts), a variety of economists (Diana Coyle, John Kay, Paul Johnson and several others; Vicky Price was co-chair), a handful of business people (Luke Johnson was another chair) and so on gathered to expound their views on the current crisis in the jobs market and what should be done about it.

Most of the speakers focussed on how to get the increasing number of unemployed back to work – through increasing or decreasing public spending, improving education, promoting entrepreneurship, innovation and collaboration, and so on.

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David Miliband at the RSA

But I left the event thinking that they’d really been addressing the wrong issues.

The most interesting discussions came from Dave Coplin, who works in “envisioning” at Microsoft, David Smith, and Paul Gregg.

Coplin – perhaps surprisingly – argued that technology is (or should be) irrelevant: it is just a tool, pervasive as it may be, that will allow us to do the jobs we do. The point here is that we need to be technologically literate: technology might be invisible, but it stills needs to be designed, built and understood. Clearly increasing use of technology may help improve productivity and enable new, dynamic ways of working, and ensuring people are technologically literate will may people better fitted to the workplace (whatever form that might be).

Paul Gregg, who has been working on youth unemployment with the elder Miliband [pdf], was remarkably sanguine: he reckoned that the UK had been very successful at creating jobs over the last few years and that there were no structural problems in UK employment patterns. Employment had been quite resilient in the face of the extended recession. What was worrying was the graininess of unemployment: localised concentration of unemployment, and more importantly, long-term unemployment, specifically among the young. His solution was – erm – the urgent need to create new jobs.

David Smith was perhaps the most optimistic. He reckoned that demographic factors – the growth of the middle class in China and India, for instance – meant that there were lots of opportunities. Technology would mean that there were new jobs – he imagined body-part engineers, vertical farmers, waste-data handlers, and virtual lawyers – and of course things we can’t even imagine yet. The future of jobs, he felt, relied on creativity, innovation, and being flexible: when can’t teach people to do jobs that we can’t even conceive yet, be we can teach people to be adaptable, resilient and open to change.

(I’m not so sure that these are actually new jobs: if you think about the growth of jobs in the last thirty years, the new jobs – like software engineer or call centre worker – are actually doing things that were done before, but using new technology – thirty years ago, companies had people interacting with customers in shops and offices on the High Street, now they do it over the phone, in a call centre; but what they do is intrinsically the same.)

So why did I think they were asking the wrong questions?

Well, aside from Coplin and Smith, there was little examination of what work itself might be like – changing work patterns (increase possibilities from freelancing, portfolio careers, multiple jobs, home-working and so on). The world of work could be very different, whatever jobs we are doing, and this could have huge implications.

Whilst many speakers said that there may be an increased polarisation between highly skilled and unskilled workers, with many jobs deskilled – a process which has been going on for decades if not centuries – there was no discussion about what this might mean for society. Again, the changes on society and how we live our lives could be considerable.

But fundamentally I was uneasy because speaker after speaker seemed to think that, once out of recession, it would be back to business as usual. There seemed to be no consideration that maybe the game had changed – that the “global financial crisis” might actually come to prove that the 20th century model of capitalism changed.

Aside from increasing productivity from technological advance, at some point economic growth will stop: there is only one world to go around. Concentrating on doing more of the same – which got us into this mess – really didn’t seem to make sense to me: so consideration of alternatives – a bit of economic imagination required, perhaps – would have made for an interesting – creative! innovative! discussion…

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