Education must change for brave new world of work

Both ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ jobs affected by evolving workplace

Liverpool’s reputation for high unemployment is only partly deserved – Merseyside as a whole has an unemployment rate of 9.3 per cent, well below some other peripheral regions of Europe. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Liverpool’s reputation for high unemployment is only partly deserved – Merseyside as a whole has an unemployment rate of 9.3 per cent, well below some other peripheral regions of Europe. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Fri, Sep 27, 2013, 01:02

Soccer spectators are not known for their sensitivity or compassion. Manchester United fans often bait visiting Liverpool supporters with a version of You’ll Never Walk Alone: the Mancunian rewrite includes the words “Sign on, sign on, you’ll never work again.” This is a cruel reference to high and persistent unemployment in Liverpool. But how accurate is this? Why do some cities and regions become blighted with joblessness, whereas others seem to do so well?

Liverpool’s reputation for high unemployment is only partly deserved. A Marxist element with the city council virtually bankrupted the city in the 1980s; it takes a long time to recover from that kind of physical and reputational damage. Liverpool does have a particular problem with “workless households” – along with Glasgow, it has the highest proportion of households where nobody has a job. The numbers are stark, 30.2 per cent for Glasgow, 28.7 per cent for Liverpool. There are lots of reasons to worry about jobless families, at least as much as we are concerned about unemployed individuals. Work, in at least one sense, is a learned activity. If there are no examples of work habits, and no role models, there is a risk that unemployment becomes an acceptable norm.

In terms of the more familiar unemployment data, the numbers are not so awful (and are not as bad as they were). For Merseyside as a whole, the latest unemployment rate is 9.3 per cent, well below some other peripheral regions of Europe. It is even below the rate for Greater Manchester (9.5 per cent), something for those denizens of Old Trafford to ponder.

The thread that links these and other similar cities is that they were once heavily industrialised. From once being the dominant part of the economy, manufacturing is now below 10 per cent of UK GDP. The service sector of the economy has grown and is vibrant but has not replaced all the lost jobs. Nevertheless, the UK’s unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent is something many countries would be delighted to have.

Though there has been respectable service sector jobs growth in Liverpool, much more growth has been in London and the southeast. The UK only works as a monetary union because of the fiscal transfers from London to the poorer regions. Single currency areas that try to function without such payments are doomed to failure.

The emotional debate that takes place in the UK, and many other countries, over the disappearance of manufacturing is heavily reminiscent of the earlier outpouring of grief over the shrinking of agriculture. Arguably, the Irish economy happily missed out on this, moving at quite rapid speed from agriculture to services with only a relatively brief flirtation with manufacturing.

The moral of this story is that when it comes to jobs, everything changes, often without warning and always in unpredictable ways. One previously reliable jobs booster may now also be changing. We used to rely on economic growth to dig us out of unemployment holes, but there is reason to think that this may not be sufficient going forward.

Robotics and new technologies like 3-D printing mean that unskilled jobs may disappear almost completely. These technologies may also be set to affect “skilled” jobs. These jobs, that we once thought of as the preserve of the experienced and the educated, are now easily done by machines. Some economists think that these trends will lead to increasing polarisation: a shrinking, hyper-educated elite will get to do rewarding and interesting jobs. The rest, the vast majority of us, will just struggle, even if we have jobs.

This dystopian vision isn’t the only possible outcome. The future is, after all, uncertain. But the key insight is that unskilled work is rapidly disappearing, forever. And we have few ideas about likely skill needs going forward.

This throws a spotlight, if not a laser beam, on what we mean by education. We certainly need lots more of it. We also need to be careful what we mean by education: if change is the one constant, then we need to teach our children how to learn, continuously. Rote learning of facts is largely beside the point, there are plenty of machines for that. How we use and process facts creatively – do we teach this?