What's the Future of Your Job?
Are traditional working class jobs destined to become museum exhibits?
My great granddad Charles was a world champion coach horn-blower, which was an important job until the invention of the railway, when it became about as useful as your collection of Mini Discs is now. In 1920, there were over a million coal miners in the UK; now there are just four thousand. In the 1970s, 200,000 people worked in the UK's steel industry – today it's close to collapse.
How quickly work changes.
You might hate your job, but have you ever considered that it might not even exist in the not-so-distant future? The threat of automation – of machines and robots doing our jobs – is real, and only one of things we risk losing our livelihoods to. But then automation has always been there, from the Luddites onwards. When culture changes, so does work. Ten years ago, who would have thought you could have a legitimate, respected career as a massive douchebro on a video website? Will people look back at YouTube and Twitter jobs in the way we look at old mining communities and chimney sweeps now? Which jobs will seem archaic in the future and what will be out there for us that we haven't thought of yet?
It's the latter question that is at the heart of The Castle of Trades "future heritage museum." Located in Barking and Dagenham – a borough that used to host 40,000 former workers at Ford and housed the pharmaceutical giant, Sanofi – The Castle is a project by filmmaking pair Close and Remote, who were commissioned by arts organisation Creative Barking and Dagenham to travel around the borough in a Ford Transit Van interviewing residents about work. I remember visiting a mine in Wales as a kid and treating it like a visit to the V&A. In much the same way, this is a project which asks the question: "Are traditional working class jobs destined to become museum exhibits?"
The first film that caught my attention was about Royston Brooks, a builder by trade:
Royston has enjoyed a successful 30-year career, but, he tells us, didn't do an apprenticeship or receive "any formal training"' after he left school. He found employment where his uncle worked and picked everything up learning on the job. To me, in an era of workfare projects, unpaid internships and forced employment programmes, this sounds like a dream of years long gone.
But according to this Oxford University study, a lot of construction jobs will become "susceptible to computerisation" in order to eliminate "variability". What might keep jobs like Royston's alive is the level of "manual and finger dexterity" involved, coupled with the ability of humans to improvise or be creative.
Job automation, or computerisation, is predicted to see the erasure of two billion jobs by 2030, but by then we all might jittery wrecks. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, nearly half of employers have seen a rise in stress-related illnesses in their workforce. Aside from wage stagnation and rising costs of living, a culture of abandonment has entered working life, making us feel that we are at constant risk of being fired, or euphemistically "let go" by our employers.
Perhaps, then, we will see a rise in work-related psychotherapy jobs. Awele Odeh, who is the subject of in another of Close and Remote's Barking films, is employed to help people with "stress management" and training for "self awareness and self leadership":
It seems we are still in the era of the self. Self-employment is at its highest since records began. Depending on your perspective, being self-employed can be liberating and give you freedom from management structure, or it can drive pay down and make you feel insecure about work.
I spoke to Khushnood, a resident of Barking Riverside, outside the 'Castle'. She has set up a social enterprise – a business that trades for a social and/or environmental purpose. A trained nutritionist, Khushnood couldn't work full time after having children, so she set up her non-profit organisation. "Our community needs lots of support because of the government cuts," she told me. "The government no longer provides as much support as it used to. Charities are restricted to only some things and private business obviously won't be able to get the funds that are available for particular community projects. With a social enterprise you fill in these gaps."
Perhaps social enterprises are one of the areas of work that will increase. Depending on future governments, direct public spending may never reach the heights it did in the 1960s. Kushnood certainly feels compelled to address this, and by setting up a business that acts as with a quasi-welfare interest she is providing a very 21st-century solution. However, she also mentioned that her father was a businessman and, "it seemed much easier to set up a business back then. Financially difficult of course, but the approach and way to do things was easier. Now there are so many laws and so many procedures you have to go through. Things have become much more complicated."
But even setting up a business – something a machine can't currently do – is trickier than you might think. Computerisation might destroy most of the bullshit jobs that currently make us feel useless, but what will it create? With destruction, also comes opportunity. Following Rohit Talwar's advice to head teachers about helping young people safeguard their future, I spoke to another futurologist, Richard Watson about work.
He told me that work exists now for social reasons as much as productive ones. "It would be a disaster if formal work [places where groups of people go to perform tasks] vanishes. Work isn't just about money, it's essential to identity, status, meaning and the social aspects are vital. If we all end up working alone, at home, part-time we will be anxious, stressed and lonely."
He also said that he sees the amount of hours we work increasing with automation, rather than decreasing, as luxury automation utopians would like us to believe. "We're living longer so we'll need more money. Our pensions system is largely bust. One in seven people in the UK have almost no savings for retirement. But this isn't always bad. Working is good for us. When people (especially men) retire they do tend to die!"
Watson predicts that "anything involving data input or repeatable or repetitive tasks" will be automated. It won't be the higher level of jobs, but the lower level. "Low-cost lawyers are at risk from completemycase.com and Google are offering US case law searches for free, but any lawyer that's creative and good [personable] is safe. The safest jobs will be those that involve human empathy or creativity, intuition or abstraction. Good teachers, good nurses, doctors, artists, writers, inventors – they're are all safe."
Watson also tells me of jobs that will appear that don't currently exist, jobs like a digital executor who, "will carry out directions for the dispersal of our digital property and manage peoples' digital identities after death." Or, "brain augmentation and implant surgeons that improve certain functions such as memory or cosmetic brain surgery."
I ask Kushnood if she's positive about her young children's working future. "I don't want them to think, 'I should have known this, I should have seen this earlier'. There are so many new jobs and job titles that have emerged that you have to have an open mind. Because of all the things I do, some people call me an 'activist'. But I don't like that word. So people said to me, you can call yourself a 'social architect'. Now I've decided that's what I am!"
The unknowable is always daunting, and despite the opportunities that inevitably arise, it's hard not to worry about job security. I asked Richard what the safest job of all would be. "A vicar. Because how do you automate belief or spirituality?"
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