Automation for the People – are jobs at risk from rise of the robots?

By Paul Rushworth, City View

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash
Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Cities in the North and Midlands are expected to bear the brunt of job losses to robots over the next 12 years, with the potential to further compound the North/South divide.

A new report by the Centre for Cities claims that by 2030 around 3.6 million currently existing jobs could be displaced as robots and automated technology are rolled out in the workplace.

Workers in shops, administration and warehouses in Northern England and the Midlands are disproportionately at risk with estimates that nine areas could lose more than a quarter of jobs to automation.

The report – Cities Outlook 2018 – is the Centre for Cities’ annual health-check on UK city economies, and focuses this year on the potential impact of automation and globalisation in driving both jobs growth and job losses in British cities over the coming decades

Discussing the report Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of Centre for Cities said that a focus on local requirements coupled with education reform and retraining are key to combating the risks posed by automation as well as taking advantage of the opportunities:

“Automation and globalisation will bring huge opportunities to increase prosperity and jobs, but there is also a real risk that many people and places will lose out. The time to act is now – national and local leaders need to ensure that people in cities across the North and Midlands can share in the benefits these changes could offer.

“That means reforming the education system to give young people the cognitive and interpersonal skills they need to thrive in the future, and improving school standards, especially in places where jobs are most at risk. We also need greater investment in lifelong learning and technical education to help adults adapt to the changing labour market, and better retraining for people who lose their jobs because of these changes.

“In an evermore divided country, it’s increasingly clear that a one-size-fits-all approach from central government is inadequate to address the myriad issues that different places face. The challenges and opportunities ahead for Blackburn are very different to those for Brighton. The Government needs to give cities more powers and resources to tackle the issues that automation and globalisation will present, and to make the most of the benefits they will bring.”


Of course the fear of technological unemployment is nothing new. Every era from the Luddite textile protests in the nineteenth century, to our current preoccupation with the threat posed by Artificial Intelligence and a technological singularity has seen hyperbolic fears about robots replacing humans in the workforce.

In truth automation has a long history of reshaping people’s jobs and the way in which people work and Cities are no more at risk of automation today than they were a hundred years ago.

Domestic servants and laundry workers, once 10% of the city workforce, have all but disappeared over the past century, their jobs made obsolete with the introduction of labour saving electrical devices.

Just as these workers were forced to readjust and move into the newly created roles and jobs provided by an automated economy, the checkout staff and warehouse workers of today will need to adapt to shifting workforce demands to ensure they are not left behind.

The transition for these workers can only be achieved smoothly with careful planning and Government support.

Speaking recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos the Prime Minister pledged:

“Just as we act to help support new jobs today, so we also need to help people secure the jobs of tomorrow.

So we are establishing a technical education system that rivals the best in the world, alongside our world-class higher education system.

We are developing a National Retraining Scheme to help people learn throughout their career.

And we are establishing an Institute of Coding – a consortium of more than 60 universities, businesses and industry experts to support training and retraining in digital skills.”

It is crucial that these well intentioned plans come to fruition, prove to be a success and soon, for if they fail the consequences for our cities in the North and Midlands could be catastrophic.