The answer to post-industrialisation

It’s not hard to see the effects of post-industrialisation in Britain. Today’s Observer carried a vivid account of its effects in Ebbw Vale, a once-thriving steel town.

And there are some sensible suggestions about how to deal with the aftermath, as well as the next wave of de-employment which will soon be upon us, brought about by the increasing use of robots and AI. As the article quotes:

“Automation is a risk to many occupations across Wales and the UK,” says Professor Julie Lydon, chair of Universities Wales who recently wrote an article entitled The Robots are Coming.

The key to avoiding a repeat of the devastation caused when the mines and factories shut is investment in skills, according to Lydon.”

So his solution, common to many, is to “focus on developing skills which are with you for life, and make you more adaptable and employable through your career.” This is easier said than done. He says it will mean “building on existing collaboration between universities, employers and colleges, and finding new ways to provide these skills, such as through degree apprenticeships.” This is all good stuff, and the right thing to be doing now, slightly ahead of the automation drive to come. But as automation pushes further and deeper into the economy, it won’t be enough.

This approach doesn’t address the longer-term. It’s hard to see many jobs which won’t be capable of automation in the future. And if we continue simply to focus on “jobs” as if this is a synonym for a fulfilled life, we will be attempting to solve the short-term problem while leaving the much larger challenge completely unaddressed.

We need to start teaching our children to develop meaningful lives with or without “jobs”, or we may find ourselves slipping into a world where we try to out-compete automation at any cost in a quest to hang onto the “jobs”, a losing battle and one which will cost dear.