Today is my 50th birthday and in a period of retrospection I am thinking back to when I was growing up and clearly remember being told how work was going to change for my generation. A beautiful utopian vision was painted for us where we were going to have to work less and have much more leisure time. Being young and naive I swallowed that hook, line and sinker.

In fact one of the key planks of that argument was the increasing use of technology to ease our working life and make that leisure time so much more available. In some senses that has very much come to pass. Google and others are running driverless cars, operations can now be done with precision not offered by surgeons and who doesn’t thrill at the sound of “unexpected item in the bagging area” from a supermarket self checkout? And here is a great video of the ultimate in technology taking over with robots working for Amazon to pick your parcels. Note, not a human in sight.

So why aren’t all those displaced taxi drivers, surgeons and parcel pickers sat at home concentrating on their painting, outside playing with their children or down the local leisure centre? Because people want to work nay people NEED to work. In fact I would argue that the need to work is contained within the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualisation.

Also, something that was glossed over in my story of the utopian future was that even leisure costs money and the state isn’t going to provide for you so you have to work to live.

The reality of working life in the first half of the 21st century is much more dystopian than utopian and particularly if you are young. If you are under 25 you are three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the working population and the youth unemployment rate is the worst for 20 years. This is caused, in part, by people living and consequently, working longer meaning that jobs aren’t being freed up.

So the question is if the dream as presented, where technology frees everyone up to work less and enjoy more, isn’t workable what is the solution that sees technology continuing to displace more workers?

Given that a Logan’s Run type solution isn’t going to be particularly palatable we need to look at alternatives. While this is a national issue, possibly even international, and needs to be lead by government no matter what leaning, perhaps it is time to look at what individual organisations can do.

Here are some of my personal thoughts on what might work, although this won’t suit every organisation or individual:

  • Apprenticeship schemes are one possibility giving young people a foot in the door but are only any good if a real opportunity for a real job exists.
  • Job shares. Already something that is popular with those returning from maternity leave where the individual isn’t ready to come back full time and two people work the same job.
  • Part-time working. A large multi-national company I know allows those in their final year of employment before retirement to work four days a week but are paid for five. While this might be a perk that not every organisation can afford it has two benefits. Firstly it easies the individual into retirement and secondly starts the inevitable handover to someone else.
  • Lower the retirement age. This one goes against all the recent employment changes and would be a drastic measure but could free up more jobs.

As you can see there is no solution that is either easy or palatable, if that were so then it would surely have already been done but I believe that it is time for a national debate on working practices as the situation is only going to get more acute as technology accelerates. Unless of course the robots take over…

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