In a high-skill, high-tech economy, who is work for?

As the UK government pivots towards artificial intelligence as industrial strategy, we must reflect on the purpose of work and the place of technology in the transition. The assumption that accelerated innovation will by default lead to a more skilled workforce is contestable. Abigail Gilbert writes that the government should initiate a Work 5.0 Strategy and bring forward robust proposals for the governance of AI systems, in an effort to value and reward human service work more highly.

A high-skill, high-wage economy is a desirable future in the eyes of many. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Prime Minister Boris Johnson focused his party conference speech a few days ago on such an outcome and cited tech as at the heart of this transition.

Yet, in recent weeks a crisis in supply of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and, before that, agricultural workers, defined media attention—roles widely perceived as ‘low-skill’ and low-wage work. While driving jobs are subject to much ‘hype’ about imminent automation, many consider farm work to have long since been mechanised – didn’t we do that in the first industrial revolution?

Newfound labour shortages reveal (just as essential work did through the pandemic) that humans are still the backbone of our economy, and it’s often the least paid people the ones we can’t go on without. Labour shortage concerns since Brexit have been in exactly those industries (care, hospitality) deemed to be future growth sectors for the future of work, as work in these sectors here remains resistant to automation. Thus, we should perhaps focus most on how this work is valued in our economy.

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