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Automation: will it destroy jobs or make new ones?

6:45pm, Tuesday 13 February 2018, Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London

Please note this is a change of topic from the one originally advertised. Our discussion on Silicon Valley has been postponed to a later date.

The mainstream narrative about automation, IT and robots is fairly well established. Since the Oxford Martin Institute (2013) and Eric Brynjoffson & Andrew McAfee (2014) first raised the alarm, low or declining unemployment levels in the West have not prevented scores of commentators forecasting mass redundancies at the hands of machines, artificial intelligence, driverless cars and all the rest. Only the OECD (see below) mounted much of a counterattack, usefully arguing for calm: it will be tasks, not jobs, that will be automated, making outright job losses more modest than the alarmists have suggested..

Now that the forecasted jobs apocalypse has failed to appear, however, defenders of capitalism have also turned to the idea that we have nothing to worry about at all. History, it’s said, has repeatedly shown that new technology brings not just job losses, but the creation of new jobs.

How true is this? Is it a law of capitalism that, regardless of the historical era, new tech begets new jobs? And, now that the World Economic Forum has called for upskilling and reskilling, are measures to help redundant workers mainly a matter of taking a data-driven approach to uncovering new skills and new jobs, as well as individuals having the right mindset to get those new jobs? Or is Britain’s disastrous experiment with employer levies for apprenticeships only an extreme example of a worldwide trend – to talk up ‘lifelong learning’, while allowing all forms of vocational education to wither on the vine?


Professor James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, London South Bank University; co-author, Energise! A future for energy innovation; author, Why is construction so backward?


Background on technological unemployment

Phil Mullan, Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance, Policy Press, 2017, pp217-221

Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory and Ulrich Zierahn, ‘The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis’, OECD, 2016

James Woudhuysen, ‘Automation anxiety and the future of work’, September 2016

James Woudhuysen, ‘IT’s not the future’, spiked, July 2014,

New optimism

Cognizant, 21 Jobs of the Future: A Guide to Getting – and Staying – Employed for the Next 10 Years, November 2017

World Economic Forum, Eight Futures of Work Scenarios and their Implications, 22 January 2018

Kevin McCullagh, ‘Don’t fear the robots: why the rise of the machines is nothing to be scared of’, ICON, 26 January 2018

Sectoral optimism

Jamie Condliffe, ‘Automation May Be Creating Jobs—in Retail, at Least’, MIT Technology Review, 6 September 2017

Alexis C Madrigal, ‘Could Self-Driving Trucks Be Good for Truckers?’, The Atlantic, 1 February 2018

Cliff Moyce, ‘The AI jobs boom’, ITProPortal, January 2018

Upskilling and reskilling

World Economic Forum, Towards a Reskilling Revolution A Future of Jobs for All, 22 January 2018

Alan Tovey, ‘Apprenticeship levy is ‘at breaking point’, Daily Telegraph, 7 January 2018

Gavin Jackson and Sarah Gordon, ‘Payroll tax under attack after slump in new apprenticeships’, Financial Times, 25 January 2018

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