Days may be numbered for world of work

6 Feb 2017....The Sheffield Robotics Centre at Sheffield University. Picture Scott Merrylees
6 Feb 2017....The Sheffield Robotics Centre at Sheffield University. Picture Scott Merrylees

Will we still be reading newspapers in 10 or 20 years time? I hope so, but the impact of technology on almost every aspect of our lives is on a steep exponential curve.

The biggest impact will be on jobs that will be replaced by technology. Futurists are already looking at the enormous social transition that would be required following any widespread disappearance of work, including governments paying everyone a standard wage, regardless of whether you are employed or not. Finland has already started a pilot scheme.

The sanctity of work lies at the heart of politics, economics and social interaction, but what may be looming is an era of technological unemployment, where scientists and software engineers invent us out of work.

Imagine the not so distant future.

Your mobile phone wakes you at 7am, switches on the coffee, opens the curtains, turns on the television, switches on the lights and confirms with Uber that you will require a car to take you to the railway station. You are lucky – you still have a job.

Your driverless car arrives and the technology scans your mobile and debits your account. The station is one of the few that still has a machine to dispense newspapers and you swipe your phone to get one before boarding your driverless train. There are no drivers or guards, only a safety officer. Refreshments are available from machines, but none of them take money, only phone scans.

You next have the choice of a driverless tram or bus to take you to work, where you and two colleagues are the survivors of a firm that once employed hundreds. You keep an eye on the super computers that trade globally with other computers in nano seconds.

You reflect on how things were when you were younger: When a postman delivered mail; when you went shopping before sensors in fridges ordered online; when people manufactured things; when there were banks and estate agents on the high street; when there was a high street; when there were libraries to get books; when farmers had to drive their tractors. Your grandmother even remembers when milk was delivered.

The end-of-work argument has often been dismissed as fallacy, but now governments and planners are paying more attention to the creeping effects of automation – the downward pressure on the value and availability of work and the benefits/problems of more leisure time and how to distribute the wealth.

In 1962 President John F Kennedy said: “If men have the talent to invent new machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work.” But his successor, Lyndon B Johnson believed that the “cybernation revolution” would create a separate nation of the poor, the unskilled and the jobless.

Some companies are already introducing ‘wear and tell’ tracker gadgets that measure fitness, stress, productivity, emotions and interpersonal skills.

Carl Frey, of Oxford University, has calculated the high, medium and low risk jobs so don’t consider being an insurance underwriter, nuclear power reactor operator, accountant, technical writer or underground train driver. All of these are at around 90 per cent risk.

The widespread disappearance of work would also usher in a massive social transformation with likely fragmentation between those who can work and those who either choose not to or do not have the skills.

This transformation will not happen overnight, but we are reaching the stage where career choices for young people will become even more vital.

I knew there had to be some upside to old age.