D Smith writes leaders for The Information Daily and Public Service Digital. After a lifetime on Fleet Street he now divides his time between homes in France, India and the north west of England. He enjoys a drink (or two) eating, sleeping and poking fun.


Forget Europe, unemployment is the key issue that threatens our future

A malign force, Artificial Stupidity (AS), a form of robotic thinking originally adopted by politicians of all complexions in order to avoid rational thought has "become sentient" and taken control of the minds of our political leaders.

While everyone including London's licensed taxi drivers, a gaggle of Oxford University researchers, Radio 4, Stephen Hawking and our own columnists are wrestling with the implications of robotic automation and the imminent disappearance of astronomically large numbers of jobs, our political leaders remain stubbornly silent on the matter.

A study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University suggests that 47% of all categories of jobs providing employment today could be automated within 20 years. The Leader is willing to bet that the time frame turns out to be shorter than that.

This research has been widely misreported. Osborne and Frey did not say that 47% of all jobs will be automated but rather that 47% of all categories of jobs may disappear. If you look at the list of categories included at the end of their report it is clear that the total number of jobs under threat is far greater than 47%, simply because many of the categories are large cohorts.

Sweep away the rocket scientists of the world and we would hardly notice the blip. Make all the world's taxi drivers, delivery and distribution drivers, bus drivers, tram drivers, train drivers, street cleaner drivers and garbage truck drivers redundant and you get an unemployment problem of a size that beggars belief. There are more than four million people driving trucks, taxis, limos and buses in the USA alone.  

Technological innovation is as certain as death and taxes and all three tend to be unevenly distributed. The less well educated and the less well off will suffer the pain of the new technological revolution first, and will feel the effects for longer. But middle class, white-collar jobs are going to disappear almost as quickly as the blue-collar sort.

According to US state department figures, in the first decade of this brave new century America lost over a million jobs. Bookkeepers have been cut by a quarter, travel agents by two thirds and telephone operators by nearly a half. An MSc in Biomedical Sciences from a good UK university is now a sure passport to a job in the hospitality industry in Australia.

The debate over "benefits for migrants" whether from within or without the European Union is a whale sized red herring. Within the twinkling of an eye we will be unable to cope with paying benefits to our own unemployed, so the question of if and how we split the cake with those arriving from other countries will be academic at best.

Governments, not least the British government, should be executing policy now to manage the changes and cushion their citizens from the worst effects of the employment/technology time bomb. All parties are frighteningly silent on the subject of "the future of work". They and we will rue their carelessness.

Together we've got the public sector covered