How technology is threatening to reshape the economy and what this might mean for employment opportunities for young people in the future

By Jonathan Rallings and Camilla Harris for Children England


[Download the full paper as a PDF]



Throughout history our facility for technological development seems to have been a crucial factor in gradually elevating human beings to a level of control over their environment so dramatically greater than other species.  Such examples are in evidence throughout human evolution whether we look at the invention of the wheel (c5500 years ago), the development of agriculture (c10-20,000 years), or even as far back as the creation of primitive tools for hunting such as the hand-axe (at least 2.5 million years ago).

The pace at which our modern world is changing, though, is staggeringly fast.  It is easy sometimes to forget how swiftly we have embraced online communication and how it has changed our workplaces.  Once before – in the lifetime of the working lives for many of us – e-mails were memos, PDFs were faxes and meetings were in one place or not at all.  And what of the effect on job roles such as telephone operators or the ‘typing pool’?

The experience of the last 50 years has been of industries increasingly being mechanised so quickly that workers have been underprepared for the shift to a knowledge economy.  More recently still, the emergence of global communication and internet technologies has been so swift that multi-billion pound companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook have come to dominate business in the course of just a couple of decades.  Yet these giants are employing a fraction of the workforces they replaced – Instagram was bought in 2012 for $1 billion with just 13 employees, whereas the company its software has perhaps most pertinently replaced, Kodak, had 250,000 payroll in its heyday, the 1990s.[1] 

Over the past decade (and particularly in the past year or two) increasing attention has been paid by journalists, authors and policy-makers to the potential for new technology based on robotics and artificial intelligence to further and even more radically alter the employment market – the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’.  Of course, mechanisation and technological advance have consistently changed the nature of employment over the course of centuries - but this time the predictions are that the effects may be far more widespread and disruptive than previously. 

The potential impact of wide-scale automation on employment is huge, and these changes are now happening at a far greater pace than ever before experienced in human history.  Previous technological advances have mostly emerged incrementally, allowing time for forthcoming generations to acquire new or greater skills and emerging industries to overlap the older redundant ones; the transition from a predominantly agricultural to an industrial economy in the Western world has taken place over two or three centuries. 

Ever-improving artificial intelligence and machine learning; more mobile and flexible robotics; the networking of our devices into the ‘internet of things’; 3D printing; drones that can be automated from thousands of miles away; virtual reality machines; autonomous cars: we now stand on the brink of an economy incorporating all these and, if we are to believe scientists, much, much more.  However, despite being the subject of much contemporary public debate it is not clear whether current policies are adequately preparing our economy for the changes to come.  Inequality has been rising for years while social mobility has decreased[2], and technological advances are only likely to aggravate the trend. 

Yet despite the potential impact that such changes might have on the generation growing up now (not to mention those yet to come), little of the extensive literature on the topic so far appears to have considered how society might be best preparing our children and young people to face such a world.  Children England feels it’s about time this changed.

Our aim with this short paper is to provide the thought leadership to start a conversation. Often we are seeing technological development having the most profound impact on young people’s lives.  Yet too often in our haste to apply technologies which benefit adults we do not fully consider the implications for younger generations, or how we can mitigate any adverse effects. 

By starting this thinking now we hope to bring the needs of young people to bear in the context of the wider debate about the changing workplace.  Through our members’ work with vulnerable young people we know how difficult many are already finding it to get into steady and secure employment.  A lot needs to be done to ensure that these children do not see their opportunities and standards of living decrease in the future, or worse that the overall size of this cohort grows due to a lack of employment or opportunities to gain skills going forward.

This paper is written in two parts.  Part one contains an overview of the various expert predictions of how technology might disrupt the employment market in the future, and summarises current thinking on what it might mean for human workers.  Part two uses this overview to consider how education and employment policy might be better focussed to ensure that young people – particularly the most vulnerable groups of young people – are given the best opportunity to thrive as the workplace changes over the coming decades.

Download the full paper as a PDF



[1] Andrew Keen The Internet Is Not The Answer (2014)