By Dr Daniel Susskind

15 November 2021 - 11:30

Woman with colourful computer coding reflected onto her

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Dr Daniel Susskind is the co-author of the best-selling book The Future of the Professions and author of A World Without Work, described by The New York Times as ‘required reading for any potential presidential candidate thinking about the economy of the future’. His TED Talk, on the future of work, has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. 

Daniel spoke to us before his keynote contribution to the EU VET Toolbox Seminar ‘How can Technical and Vocational Education and Training work effectively with the private sector in fast changing economies’, which was organised by the British Council.

The British Council event looks at how education systems and policy makers can help citizens succeed in the labour market in the future.  What do you think the future labour market and jobs will look like?

One of the most important things to do when we think about the future of the labour market is not to think in terms of jobs. We talk about lawyers and doctors and teachers and accountants and carpenters and chefs. And we ask which jobs are at risk and which jobs are safe. But I think that’s an unhelpful way to think about the future of the labour market.

The reason it's unhelpful is because it encourages us to think of the work that people do as being a sort of monolithic, indivisible lump of stuff that doesn't change over time. But if you look under the bonnet of any job, what you see is that people perform a wide range of different tasks, individual tasks and activities in their jobs. 

And so, when thinking about the future of work, a very important starting point is to think bottom up in terms of tasks rather than top down in terms of jobs. Otherwise, the risk when we think about jobs, is that we get trapped in a mindset where we think the only way technological change is going to affect work is by destroying or creating entire jobs.

What are the implications of this shift for workers?

What technology and automation do is displace people from tasks and activities, but it also makes other tasks and activities more valuable and more important. If you think about what automotive technicians do today, for instance, it's very different from what they did 30 years ago; the task composition of the job has changed. This has been the important shift in economic thinking over the last decade or two, away from thinking in terms of jobs and towards thinking in terms of tasks.

Thinking about tasks helps us to understand what has happened in the world of work at the turn of the century -- and what might happen in the future. If you look at the US labour market, for instance, the most distinctive feature over the last few decades has been the hollowing out of the labour market. Many middling skilled jobs have been lost to technological change, but many lower skilled jobs and higher skilled jobs have been harder to automate.

Why has that happened? When you break down jobs in the labour market, it turns out that the sorts of tasks that we can most readily automate, ‘routine’ tasks, are disproportionately concentrated in middling skilled jobs.

Looking at countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South Asia, which are the focus of this event, do you see similar or different challenges?

In 2016, the World Bank did a piece of analysis that concluded that around two out of three jobs in developing countries were at risk of automation. Sometimes definitive numbers like that can be quite misleading and give us a false sense of certainty. But nevertheless, what this tells us is that routine tasks are likely to be disproportionately concentrated in fast-developing countries many of which are in SSA and South Asia.

So that feels like the big challenge, at least from a technological point of view. However, in thinking about automation, it’s not just whether the task is ‘routine’ or ‘non-routine’, it's also the labour costs and what technologies are available. All these things affect the impact of technology, that’s the main thing when we're trying to anticipate what's going to happen in the job market in the next 10 to 15 years. There is a bloc of jobs with a high ‘routine’ task component and those tasks are what technologies can increasingly do.

What can Technical and Vocational Education and Training institutions do?

Broadly I think there are two strategies. We need to train people to compete with systems and machines, by training them to do the sorts of things technology cannot do - certain types of creative tasks, tasks involving, for instance, judgment, creativity, problem solving, creativity, and interpersonal skills. The other strategy is that we help people learn to build new systems and machines, so people can design and operate the technology of the future.

The challenge for educational systems around the world is that, in practice, we're often doing neither of these things, instead we’re training people to do ‘routine’ tasks that have depreciating value in the labour market. 

Do policy makers need to re-think how they approach development and consider technological change and its impact on the world of work?

For generations there have been paths for people to progress through the labour market. They would start in lower skilled roles, moving into middling skilled roles and then into higher skilled roles. Automation and technological change mean many middling skilled jobs that provided a stepping-stone through the labour market have or will disappear. They're simply not available, and so there are concerns about how people can cross gaps in the labour market. This can apply in regions or countries where you have skills bases you are trying to industrialize and then professionalise. 

Many countries have moved down a clear path of development through industrialisation, first into manufacturing then on into services -- but in the future with a different spread of skilled occupations the path to develop is less clear.  People talk about premature deindustrialization, where economies have lost the moment when they would have moved away from manufacturing towards services of some kind. When a manufacturing base hasn't been available to build on, countries have fallen back and not been able to develop their economies as others have done. 

Can we leave the market to decide what the jobs of the future are and then try and catch up through education? 

If you leave the market to determine which jobs are going to be done, what you end up with is a focus on current industries or sectors, particularly those where you have an advantage over others. In the words of economists, you will develop ‘your static comparative advantage’, concentrating on what you are good at now.

But this is a mistake, because it neglects the fact that, over time with direction and purpose, you can develop. Comparative advantage isn’t a settled issue, it's dynamic and can change.

What's interesting is that if you look at countries that successfully developed over the second half of the twentieth century, very often they neglected their static comparative advantage. Instead, they had a strategic intention to focus on developing new areas, not those for which they currently had an advantage.

Leaving it to the market will only deepen your static comparative advantage, it's important to be thinking about these dynamic comparative advantages as well.  

That is a contentious idea, but it is the sort of idea that politicians, business leaders and others in countries around the world should be grappling with.

Learn about VET Toolbox.

Dr Daniel Susskind

Dr Daniel Susskind

Fellow in Economics at Oxford University, and Visiting Professor at King’s College London. Daniel is the co-author of 'The Future of the Professions' and author of 'A World Without Work'. He has also worked in various roles in the British Government – in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, in the Policy Unit in 10 Downing Street and in the Cabinet Office. He was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University.

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