Do we really need a middle class? How the UK Government should respond to the challenge of job polarisation

Women sitting at her desk doing paperwork

By Steven McGinty

At the beginning of the year, former government advisor and HR expert Kevin Green gave a TEDx talk entitled “Why our jobs matter now more than ever before”.

In his talk, he explains that technologies such as artificial intelligence have transformed the labour market and, unlike previous industrial revolutions, old jobs are not necessarily being replaced by better forms of work.

Instead, he warns, the economy is experiencing ever-increasing ‘job polarisation’. In this labour market, highly skilled, in-demand workers benefit from higher wages and flexible working conditions, whilst middle-income earners are finding their jobs disappear, and competition grows for low skilled, often manual work.

What does the research say about this phenomenon?

In 2017, the OECD published the report ‘Future of Skills and Work’, which highlighted that labour markets are polarising within some G20 countries. In the EU, data shows that between 2002-2014 medium skilled routine jobs declined by 8.9%, whilst high skilled roles rose by 5.4%, and low skilled jobs grew marginally (0.1%).

As a consequence, wage inequalities have grown. In particular, the report found that countries experiencing skills shortages are paying higher rates for staff with desirable skills and that greater competition for low skilled jobs is holding down wages for the bottom half of earners.

Greater regional inequalities are also noted as a possibility, as employers are likely to locate in areas with a high concentration of high-skilled workers – which are often very different to the areas experiencing job losses.

However, the report does suggest that some groups may benefit. For example, it highlights that disadvantaged millennials, who have grown up with technology, may have an advantage over older, less tech-savvy workers.

Is technology the only factor leading to job polarisation?

Economist Andrea Salvatori has conducted extensive research and argues that job polarisation in the UK is far more complex. In a 2015 paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, he argued that although technology is a factor, the growth in high skilled jobs can be explained by the increase in the number of graduates since the 1990s.  Similarly, in a 2016 paper, he found that routine employment did not decline in organisations which had adopted technology and that workplaces which specialise in high skilled employment had grown dramatically, from 30% to almost 50% between 1998 and 2011.

One theory highlighted is that of MIT scholar David Autor, who suggests that while technology might be replacing workers in certain tasks, it’s also complementing them in other areas which are more cognitive and difficult to automate.

In addition, Professor Maarten Goos has suggested that offshoring and the global competition for labour has been a factor. In his view, companies have taken advantage of lower wages in foreign countries, particularly in middle earning jobs such as back-office administrative functions and in customer service positions. Highly skilled jobs have been less affected as the supply of skills is less readily available.

What are the social consequences of job polarisation?

Mr Green’s Tedx Talk is less about the economics of job polarisation, and more about the social issues which may stem from this divided economy. He recounts his own experience, describing himself as a ‘late bloomer,’ and recounting his journey from an administrative middle-class job in Wandsworth council to gaining promotion through further study.

For him, the real concern is that the chasm between low and high skilled jobs means that it will be increasingly difficult for some groups in society to progress in their careers. In particular, he highlights graduates looking for their first positions, as well as mothers returning to the labour market after a period out to raise children.

Research has also shown that increased job polarisation might be leading to discontent amongst low skilled workers, and that this could partially explain recent political divisions between those living in large metropolitan cities and those in left behind regions.

So, how should the UK Government respond?

Academics Dr David Hope and Dr Angelo Martelli recently investigated the role labour market institutions play in tackling wage inequality in modern economies. By analysing the economic data for 18 OECD countries from 1970 to 2007, they attempted to prove that national labour market systems could protect wages. They found that:

strong labour market institutions, in the form of coordinated wage setting, employment protection legislation, and high wage bargaining coverage, reduces the effect of the expansion of employment in knowledge-intensive services on income inequality.”

In addition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argues that there is a need to tackle inequality locally by focusing on the bottom of the labour market, particularly by improving working conditions for low-skilled workers.

Mr Green takes a similar viewpoint, and argues the solution is a ‘revolution in lifelong learning’. This means creating labour market institutions that help people trapped in low skilled work, so that they are aware of the opportunities available to them, and potentially providing funding to support them on their journey.


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Slow by default: achieving digital transformation in the complex world of local government

City Hall, London

By Steven McGinty

Bringing local government into the 21st century is fraught with well documented challenges. In 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) carried out a survey into local government leaders’ views on digital transformation. The research identified six key barriers to digital adoption:

  • Legacy systems and ICT infrastructure
  • Lack of development funds
  • Unwillingness to change / non-cooperation of colleagues
  • Lack of in-house digital skills
  • Culturally uncomfortable for the organisation
  • Supplier inflexibility

However, there have been signs we are heading in the right direction. LocalGov Digital, a network of digital practitioners in local government, published a common approach for delivering services – an issue we discussed on our blog in June. Their hope is that this new standard (known as the Local Government Digital Service Standard) will support the sharing of good practice and lead to better public services.

In addition, many councils are involved in pilot projects and introducing new services.  For example, Cambridge City Council have launched Cambridgeshire Insight, a shared research knowledge base which allows over 20 public and third sector organisations to publish their data and make it freely available. We have also seen 18 councils coming together to collaborate on a project which aims to keep electoral registers up-to-date, potentially saving £20 million a year.

Over the past year, commentators have provided their views on what’s holding back digital transformation in local government. Below we’ve highlighted some of these.

Digital inclusion

At a TechUK event in November, Labour councillor for Harrow Council, Niraj Dattani, argued that councils should ‘aim for digital first and think about digital exclusion later’.

He suggested that if local government focused too much on the 15% of people who can’t access services, then, ultimately, nobody will have access to better services. In his view:

It’s better to serve the 85% than serve nobody at all

Theo Blackwell, Labour councillor for Camden Council, supported this view, and although he acknowledges there are legitimate digital exclusion concerns, he argued this should not limit innovation. In his blog article, ‘Scaling digital change for better public services — reflections on UK local government digital strategies’,  Mr Blackwell also expresses his fear that council leaders are setting the pace of digital transformation by their digital inclusion priorities.

However, it’s likely that organisations who advocate greater digital inclusion, (such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – who have challenged local authorities to improve accessibility), would disagree with this approach.

Interestingly, Mr Dattani emphasises that digital exclusion cannot be solved by one service or one local council, but requires cross-government collaboration.

Local leadership

Stephen Curtis, head of The Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing, has suggested that public sector leaders are ‘holding back digital revolution’. He explained that with digital transformation, technology is less important than the vision and leadership provided by senior officials. Encouraging data sharing across organisations, empowering employees, and importantly, investing in digital services, are just some of the key ingredients.

Similarly, a council chief executive has suggested that the public sector lacks people with the necessary skills to lead digital transformation. He highlighted that in many cases, anything to do with digital is given to the head of IT. As such, digital projects are often poorly planned and systems which are not fit for purpose are being digitised, when a radical rethink of a whole service is needed.

National leadership

In the March 2015 Budget, former Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that there would be a role for the Government Digital Service (GDS) in helping local government achieve their digital transformation ambitions (the success of which is up for debate). However, in Philip Hammond’s most recent Autumn Statement, there was no mention of local government.

In a recent blog article, Theo Blackwell, argues that this omission should be corrected in the upcoming Government Digital Transformation Strategy and the 2017 Budget. In his view, central government, including the GDS, have an important role to play in supporting local government. He also highlights that a coherent digital strategy has not been included in any of the agreed devolution deals.

Fear over job losses

One of the major challenges highlighted for implementing artificial intelligence (AI) is the fear over a reduction in jobs.  However, Richard Sargeant, Director of ASI Data Science, suggests this isn’t necessarily the case. In his experience, AI will usually be used for tasks that are repetitive and that most staff members don’t enjoy. Staff can then be re-targeted to areas of work best suited to people, such as human interaction, making complex decisions or thinking creatively.

Security concerns

High profile data breaches – such as the 13,000 email addresses stolen from Edinburgh City Council’s database in 2015 – are one of the main concerns for local government.

However, Martyn Wallace, new chief digital officer for 28 of Scotland’s local councils, argues that local authorities need to move away from their negative thinking on this issue. Although he acknowledges the potential harm which could come from a data breach, he emphasises the need to focus on the facts and to take an ‘appropriate view’. For him, if you have appropriate security measures, then there is no reason why security fears should limit your digital progress.

Final thoughts

Although digital change requires overcoming a variety of challenges, such as those highlighted here, the opportunities they present have the potential to create efficiencies and provide better public services. Achieving digital transformation won’t be easy, but, by building partnerships with central government and the private sector, local councils are more likely to make a success of it.

Despite the prospect of Brexit and ongoing budgetary pressures, investing in digital transformation is not an option for local government, but a necessity.


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Who’s afraid of the big, bad robot? Preparing the labour market for a future with AI

massive production

By Heather Cameron

Science fiction is slowly becoming science fact”. This is what the interim Chair of the government’s Science and Technology Committee said in their recently published report on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

While admitting there is still some way to go before we witness systems and robots like those portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars and Ex Machina, the report noted that there have been a series of recent advances across these fields that are beginning to have transformational impacts.

But just what will these impacts look like, particularly in relation to the labour market?

‘Transformational impacts’

Driverless cars and supercomputers that assist with medical diagnoses are highlighted as some of the transformational impacts of AI that have already arrived.  Others include improved automated voice recognition software and predictive text.

The increase in processing power, the wealth of data and the development of techniques such as ‘deep learning’ have all contributed to the recent progress.

However, the report also notes that such advances raise a number of social, ethical and legal questions that require consideration. These include issues about the transparency of AI decision-making as well as privacy and safety.

And while there is much excitement about the potential of AI to improve and enhance our lives, there is also widespread concern over the potential impact of increasing automation on the workplace.

Implications for employment

Fears over increased unemployment as a result of increasing automation are longstanding. The inquiry found conflicting views over the potential impact to the workforce, with some predicting a rise in unemployment, while others anticipate a transformation in the type of employment available.

It is likely that some occupations will become obsolete. Deloitte has warned that 11 million jobs across the UK economy are at high risk of being automated by 2036, with the retail and transport sectors most vulnerable. The research also indicated that almost 750,000 net jobs had been lost in manufacturing since the turn of the millennium, while the wholesale and retail sector saw net job losses of 338,000.

However, it was noted that millions of new roles had also been created in order to meet changing demand. So perhaps it is adaptation within the workforce that is needed.

Indeed, the Committee’s report highlights a need to focus on delivering the skills needed for people to adapt and thrive as new technology continues to emerge. It has been argued elsewhere that cognitive and social and behavioural skills should be made a priority in any skills strategy for the 21st century to “make workers more resilient to technology-driven labor market shocks like automation.”

And of course some sectors may be more susceptible than others.

Recent research by McKinsey suggests that the impact of automation differs dramatically across sectors and activities. It found that:

While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail. Automation, now going beyond routine manufacturing activities, has the potential, as least with regard to its technical feasibility, to transform sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work.”

Another common theme highlighted throughout the inquiry was that robotics and AI could increase productivity and efficiency. One recent study estimated that ‘£1.24bn in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5bn over the next decade’.

Future

There are clearly many debates about the potential impact of robots and AI, but it is not yet clear what the actual impact of advances in these fields will be on the labour market.

What is clear is that there is a need for skills to be developed for a world where AI is more prevalent.

But as the inquiry highlighted, the government doesn’t yet have a strategy for developing these new skills or responding to the social and ethical issues it poses. The report therefore recommends that “the government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.”

Perhaps the future will be similar to the past, as written evidence to the inquiry suggests:

During the industrial revolution, mechanisation did not change long-run equilibrium employment because new jobs emerged which were unimaginable at that time. Similarly, jobs lost to automation today might be replaced by jobs we cannot yet imagine.


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