Our reliance as a society on technology is now almost total. Few of us would be able to cope if all of the innovations we use every day, from our smartphones to our high-speed internet, ceased to operate.

However, improvements in technology and its ability to replicate human actions is problematic for some. In particular, the belief that Artificial Intelligence will develop to a point where machines will take over our jobs, precipitating an exponential rise in unemployment is creating anxiety for many.

Recently, these concerns have been voiced by extremely credible and well-informed sources, pushing the issue further up the nation’s agenda. The Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane gave a stark warning this summer on the threat of long-term unemployment which he believes will be the result of Artificial Intelligence. Haldane spoke of a widespread “hollowing out” of the jobs market, arguing that the dark side of the current technological revolution will be experienced “…when we have machines both thinking and doing – replacing both the cognitive and the technical skills of humans.”

In my view, Haldane’s comments are much less about scaremongering around technology and more an urgent and timely reminder that we need to get our act together as a country if we are all to fully benefit from the fourth industrial revolution.

Talking about a revolution

We must, first of all, do more as a nation to address the ever-widening skills gap. This requires an informed and practical government-led strategy, created in close consultation with businesses and must be created and implemented as a matter of urgency. UK companies are already suffering from a serious shortage of crucial IT skills and with technological innovation accelerating so rapidly, we could soon find ourselves with an almost unbridgeable gap, completely lacking in the skilled people we need to power our future growth.

Any government strategy designed to counter the skills gap must of course, be wide-ranging if it is to be impactful. However, I firmly believe that we need nothing less than a skills revolution in the UK if we are to remain globally competitive and not see our citizens suffer unemployment as a result of AI and automation. We have a pressing need to not only address the STEM skills gap, but also to completely rethink how we view education and learning. 

Lifelong learning will save us

Future disruption to the job market caused by the automation of cognitive skills means that lifelong learning will become key to ensuring technology creates opportunities and not unemployment. This will require a different approach to education and training, with businesses, entrepreneurs and educational institutions closely collaborating to ensure we meet the rapidly changing needs of students. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to lifelong learning, the UK is moving in completely the wrong direction. Recent research by the Sutton Trust has shown part-time study in England has collapsed over recent years, with numbers of part-time students falling by 51% between 2010-2015. This is of concern not only for businesses who need to employ people with up-to-date skills but for individuals who need to ensure their continued relevance in an increasingly disrupted and fast-paced jobs market.

As the job market radically changes, so too must the way we train and upskill. Meeting the needs of businesses and the economy as a whole therefore rests on widening access to higher-level education and promoting different and diverse routes to study that will appeal to more people.

Technology will almost certainly help with this. The promise of free, widespread access to high quality learning is a very attractive one and the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) phenomenon has huge potential for those looking to increase educational opportunities throughout their lives. MOOCs can be an online destination for those looking to increase skills as they progress through life, enabling them to join a community of like-minded fellow learners while working towards some type of accreditation.  

Alongside these structural changes, we also need to create a different mind-set so education becomes something we dip in and out of throughout our lives, rather than something we do when young and then forget about. In a world where an estimated 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet the only way we can prepare for the future is to be as cognitively flexible as possible, open to new ideas and challenges and willing to learn new things and develop new skills throughout our lives.

If this sounds daunting, it really shouldn’t. Studies consistently show that adult learning has benefits that extend far beyond our ability to navigate a dramatically different job market. Evidence suggests that it can help foster everything from a feeling of purpose in life to greater levels of wellbeing and an increase in life satisfaction. It has even been argued that continued education throughout life contributes to a ‘cognitive footprint’ which may delay the onset of dementia.

Creating this culture of continuous learning will not be easy, but it is completely achievable and will make the difference between success or failure in the face of huge technological change. Given the right mindset and the right tools that change could be tremendously exciting.

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