Disruption is nothing new for London. In the past 70 years, the city has transformed from a declining imperial capital to one of a handful of “global cities”. And during this time London’s economy has proved itself to be astonishingly resilient – to financial booms and crashes, to global economic shifts, to terrorism and instability.
But times are changing. Technology is enabling more and more complex non-routine jobs to be automated, and Brexit and pay pressures could accelerate its adoption, shaking up London’s labour market.
In fact, there are four big changes set to hit London’s workers in the coming years.
1. Lower and medium skilled jobs could be automated
Around a third of London’s jobs have high potential for automation in the next 20 years. This could have an impact on around a million low- and medium- skilled jobs in the capital, from taxi drivers to warehouse workers, shop assistants to secretaries.
And just as the secretarial and administrative occupations that once looked like solid middle-class employment 50 years ago rapidly disappear, bookkeeping and accountancy jobs may be soon to follow them.
2. Brexit could act as a catalyst for increasing the speed of automation
But automation is not automatic. Employers need to make the decision to invest in software and machinery rather than wages.
Brexit could tip the balance and make the business case stack up. Around 15 per cent of London’s workforce are overseas EU/EEA citizens, and some of the industries which are more susceptible to automation in London – restaurants, hotels, construction – are particularly dependent on EU workers. Net migration has fallen since the referendum in 2016: should immigration policies tighten post-Brexit, the capital could see labour shortages in key areas of its workforce.
Staff shortages may begin to bite before automation is technically and commercially feasible. While this shortfall would most likely lead to wage inflation, and a welcome relief for low-paid workers, it might at the same time strengthen the case for and accelerate automation.
3. As jobs disappear, new jobs will be created
At the same time, demand for jobs involving social and creative intelligence – such as personal fitness instructors, care workers and designers – may grow. Centre for London’s analysis indicates that new jobs are most likely to be created in finance and insurance, and information and communication, which are specialisms for the capital, as well as public services and manufacturing.
But while automation may create new jobs, there is a difference in scale from their industrial era predecessors. Digital businesses need fewer employees to generate a large turnover than traditional industry often required.
Take this stark comparison. In 1962, when their annual sales surpassed $1bn, Kodak Eastman employed 75,000 people in production sites across the world. When Facebook passed $8bn, today’s equivalent of this threshold, it employed only around 6,300 people.
We may need to start thinking about how London and the UK manage to enhance social inclusion, at a time when fewer people are in full-time employment.
4. Londoners won’t enter ‘jobs for life’ – and will need new skills to reflect this
We’re quickly seeing that jobs are no longer for life: a change that automation has deepened. At the same time, it’s said that 65 per cent of future jobs have not yet been created. Businesses are increasingly finding themselves looking for transferable skills – rooted in things like project management, problem solving and customer service – rather than specific academic or technical skills.
These four big changes will transform the way people work in London over the coming years. At the end of the day robots will always be robots. But we all need to recognise that our jobs are likely to change. This means throughout our careers, it’s likely we’re going to need to learn new skills and retrain.
Employers will need to work with government, schools and colleges to ensure that workers are equipped with the social and creative skills that the jobs of the future will demand, and to strengthen London’s human capital.
Amy Leppanen is communications officer at the Centre for London.
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