Robot Revolution: Our disappearing jobs and the future of work


“Imagine a pair of horses in the early 1900s talking about technology. One worries that all these new mechanical muscles will make horses unnecessary.

The other reminds him that everything so far has made their lives easier.

Remember all that farm work?

Remember running coast-to-coast delivering mail?

Remember riding into battle?

All terrible.

These city jobs are pretty cushy — and with so many humans in the cities there are more jobs for horses than ever”

Humans Need Not Apply –  C G P Grey

Sometimes the threat to your industry is not the one that is directly in your line of vision, but the one at the periphery. You might not even recognise it as a problem.

The social housing sector is a good example , believing as it does that planned welfare reforms are the single biggest threat.

10 years from now that sector will look back and see it for what it was – a minor external distraction.

The real disruptive influences will be a rapidly ageing society , a pace of technological change that it failed to embrace , and the disappearance of the jobs that employ their tenants.

People aren’t dying as much as they used to.  And the robots have arrived to do all their work for them.

The rise of the robots is articulated brilliantly by CGP Grey in Humans Need Not Apply. In it we are reminded that those horses never did find new jobs. The equine population peaked in 1915 – and it was all downhill from there.

Worryingly it makes the point that us humans are now the horses – and the new jobs that are being created are not a significant part of the labour market. This has potentially dire consequences. Not least for social housing.

We already know that levels of unemployment are disproportionately high among social housing residents. Many housing associations do work around increasing employability and volunteering – usually as a sideline rather than as part of core business.

But getting people into work only solves half the problem. Many of those jobs – often low paying and part time – simply won’t be around for much longer. They will be the first to get automated by the bots.

From driverless cars to drone deliveries – the potential impact is enormous. But this is not a mainstream topic of conversation in health , housing and social care. Indeed – if you do talk about it you are likely to be dismissed as a bit of an oddball.

Who is doing the joined up thinking about what happens in communities where less people are working?

If there’s a criticism of this line of thought  – it’s that it focuses on the negatives rather than the wonderful opportunities.

Baxter. Works 24hrs a day. No sick leave.
Baxter. Works 24hrs a day. No sick leave. Doesn’t look at Facebook.

Take Baxter, who was created to take manufacturing duties from humans. But , the creator Rodney Brooks has contended that the robot won’t lead to lost jobs. On the contrary, he believes Baxter could be the salvation of workers, who would otherwise succumb to Chinese competition. Indeed , the International Federation of Robotics has reported that the one million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs.

So what are the jobs in our communities that need protecting? And how could we deploy technology to retain vital local services?

Helping those living with dementia patient -Paro
Helping those living with dementia: Paro

And then there’s Paro , a therapeutic robot that is used widely in Japan but is now being tested by the NHS. Paro allows the benefits of animal therapy to be administered to patients in care facilities. Far from being a toy, Paro stimulates interaction between patients and caregivers and has been shown to improve relaxation and motivation.

How could this new breed of companionship robots help communities at risk of isolation and loneliness? How could we combine real world active networks with these sociable robots?

Instead of ignoring this , or dismissing as science fiction – it’s time we brought the conversation mainstream.  We need to start racing with the machines rather than ignoring them.

Really we have three options:

  • We start to reimagine communities and what meaningful work and play looks like in the future. We begin long term planning building from the skills already in the community. We embrace technology and develop local frameworks that enable people to do better things.
  • We forget the idea of work in abundance and start an argument for a Universal Basic Income (in essence – we guarantee every citizen a flat basic allowance, which would be unaffected by any earnings they gained on top of it).  Matt Leach has written an excellent post on this concept , which admittedly would take huge political will to achieve.
  • We do nothing. And we stumble into a world of disappearing jobs and fail to imagine a better future. We are left with increasingly marginalised communities with reduced income, less active lifestyles and all the resulting health problems. 

Truthfully we need more than a robot revolution.

We need a revolution in the way housing , health and social care approach their work.

A shift away from siloed approaches where we might be ignoring the real threats – as well as the many opportunities. We need a radical vision for connected communities and a network of innovators and entrepreneurs to help drive us forward.

This will be painful as it means challenging a lot of vested interests, breaking through the ‘sector think’ which has existed for decades.

None of our organisations are special. None are irreplaceable.

We have to think and act very differently if we are to avoid a future where humans need not apply.

The Connected Homeless

homeless2“It’s amazing how nice their Smartphones are. Some would actually go without food rather than lose their Smartphone.”

This quote is from a manager of a homelessness hostel.  Someone who has observed up close that, for the Connected Generation , staying in touch with their networks isn’t a luxury- it’s a necessity.

This isn’t something particularly new. Many reports have established that homeless people are making use of online networks to find shelter, food , and to keep in touch with relatives. And there are examples of the homeless starting online support groups as a very practical means of staying in touch with each other.

This week I helped out on a project to develop a digital hub and social network for the homeless. Mobile and social technology give us unprecedented opportunities to reach out to the most marginalised in society.

The research has identified that under 25 year old homeless are “highly proficient” in the use of social networks to maintain contact with relatives and friends. Additionally smartphone ownership amongst the single homeless is becoming pervasive “regardless of circumstance”.

But it also identifies that existing service provision often isn’t equipped to engage online.

 “Why can’t I be on Facebook? I have as much right to that as anyone else. Just because I am homeless does not mean that I don’t care about this stuff, you know? My family is on Facebook. My friends are on Facebook. People who care about me are on Facebook.”

Some of us will find the concept of homeless people spending time on social networks and possessing smartphones as puzzling.  Have they got their priorities right?

It’s because we can’t truly imagine the trauma of becoming homeless and the things we would hold onto when we have lost pretty much everything else.  For many people – the phone is no longer a phone. It’s a small computer containing address details of friends and family, photographs of loved ones , and diary notes describing important memories. It’s a very personal item.

Additionally many of us have a false perception of the cost of smartphones.  We often still think of it as expensive technology.  But you could be paying as little as £10 per month for a decent phone and data plan. That’s less than the price of a Costa Coffee each week. If you were homeless , which would you choose?

Many public service organisations don’t realise that they are missing out on huge opportunities to engage with groups that would have previously been classified “hard to reach”.  That’s not just the homeless , but ex-offenders, young people not in education or employment , people with multiple health needs. The list could go on.

But whilst it’s revealed that many of the homeless have access to the latest digital resources , the organisations and professionals they have to deal with sometimes do not. There is still a lack of access to Social Media.  As one person I spoke to commented, “How can I tailor services to the homeless on Facebook when Facebook is still seen as a time waster by my manager?”

Then there are repeated stories of internet access to “sensitive” sites being blocked. One IT Manager was quoted as saying the company firewall is “doing it’s job well ” by preventing access to a site on HIV prevention.

But even more common is the story of front line practitioners without the tools to do the job. Using basic phones that can’t text properly never mind access the web.

John Popham has written about this in his blog – correctly asserting that organisations who don’t equip staff are “sending people out to do their jobs with both hands tied behind their back.”

There is a huge irony here – the “hard to engage” are no longer the customers and service users.  It’s us. The service providers.

In 2012 – a Smartphone ceased to be a luxury. It’s not a gadget – it’s a completely new interface for staff and service users to engage , collaborate and design better services.

If the homeless get that , why don’t we?

Let’s make job descriptions inspirational….

About 3 months ago I posted a blog/rant about why most Job Descriptions are complete rubbish.

You know what I’m talking about. You read the one for the job you are doing now.

Uninspiring: Although you said it was really really exciting at interview.

Impenetrable: You had to search the web to understand some of the jargon.

Long. Very Long: You didn’t read all of it did you? Be honest.

If the typical manager/HR team had written a job description for Mo Farah it would very likely read:

“Needs to run 10,000m every couple of years , remain upright throughout and complete the task to an acceptable level. Your performance is subject to an annual review but don’t worry mate keep your head down and do your best – you won’t get fired.”

And then we would follow it with a load of waffle that states the bleeding obvious:

  • Must demonstrate ability to tie own laces
  • Punctuality when turning up for the race – essential
  • Performs other duties as required by the line manager

As I mentioned in the previous blog – my 5 rules are now these:

  1. Stick to a 140 Character Job Purpose
  2. 1 Page Total Job Description.
  3. Use a picture or graphic.
  4. Use passionate language.
  5. Describe how you want the person to make a difference.

A few people have asked what happened next. Did HR get it? Did a JD that included the word “Sexy” in its job purpose get past go?

Well , the answer is yes.

Here’s a quick sample from five of them. See what you think. Would it make you want to get out of bed in the morning?

“You are a teacher , a coach , a mentor and a shoulder to cry on….your mission is that no meeting you host will ever be boring.”

“You are responsible for making Volunteering sexy. You give people something to look forward to.”

‘You will live and breathe Connect – ensuring it delivers “Apple standard” performance to its users. You are responsible for whether it succeeds or fails.”

 “You believe that young people can create the jobs of the future. And you make it happen.”

“You are the first step in helping someone be the best they can be. You change lives”

Whether you love or loathe this – there is a genuine problem we all need to help solve. 1 in 4 of us don’t feel we reach our creative potential in the workplace.

And right now we need creativity , innovation and aspiration in our companies and communities more than ever before.

So let’s say goodbye to average. And aim for inspirational from the start.

Two things you can’t say on Twitter…..

There are two opinions that are definite no-go zones amongst the liberal left twitterati.

Opinions that , if you were to express them openly , could see you banished to the most remote, uninhabited and hostile parts of the social media planet.(Linkedin…..or even worse, Google+)

What are they?

1 – Saying you think the NHS is a bit wasteful really and maybe reform isn’t a totally bad idea


2 – Saying that despite the economy being tough –  you think that there are jobs out there

Well , I feel like starting the week with a bang. So I’m going to say that , I , Paul Taylor , believe that there are jobs out there.

OK – before you press “unfollow” let me explain:

  • There are millions of jobs that have yet to be invented. I’m not going to expand that point here. You can read my previous blog on this. In fact if anyone knows a window cleaner who also cleans the house/irons clothes/and cuts hair please pass on my details.I’m recruiting.
  • There are jobs – but often people don’t feel they have any skills , or feel terrified at the prospect of even applying.
  • There are jobs – but people get fed up of applying when they get zero feedback and never hear anything about their application.
  • And even in the area’s where jobs are very few -there are loads of volunteering and training opportunities that provide people with confidence , and improve their skills.

Very very few people don’t want to work – just sometimes it looks like it’s too much of a challenge. It feels like they will never make it.

Today see’s the launch of a new project that I am proud to be part of.

Connect , as we call it , opens it doors today as a private beta site. It’s a Social Network for Jobs, Skills and Opportunities. A virtual marketplace for the user to share their skills and develop their confidence , and get access to priority work opportunities. And it will also offer loads of volunteering positions, and give access to innovators who might just help people develop the next big idea. The jobs of the future.

We want it to be a supportive community which is about hope rather than despair. It’s about helping everyone be the very best they can be.

Initially all new Bromford tenants and their families will be given access to Connect. Additionally they can access a Skills Coach, whose job it is to inspire them to do the things that they thought they couldn’t. Whether its getting online for the first time , or preparing for an interview – we are hoping we can remove some of the many barriers that people face as they enter or return to work.

We’ll be letting you know how its going here and on the Connect Blog.

If you haven’t unfollowed me, of course.

On this work experience thing……..

Designing The Experience of Work
I hated my work experience. Two weeks spent making cup’s of tea and doing the filing for embittered old men. It instilled in me a fear of offices, old men and filing that took 6 years to get over.
Then I found a manager who helped me find what I liked doing.
There is surely nothing wrong with the concept of “work experience”. The concept of giving people a chance – any chance – to prove what they can do has to be applauded.
But there is a problem with work experience. And it’s not just that businesses may be using unpaid help to subsitute the work of establishment posts. ( I’ve not seen any evidence to be fair)
The problem is the concept of work experience hasn’t changed fundamentally since the late 1980’s. It’s still about herding people into experiences that they might hate rather than unlocking potential.
Bromford have gone some way to re-designing this. Over 200 people applied for our last Opportunities 4 Employment placements. Paid placements that give 6 months work experience in a variety of roles and experiences. Giving the young person the opportunity to try us out as much as we are trying them. And if they like it they can have an Apprenticeship in the area of the business they are most interested in.
There is room for further innovation. Work Experience needs re-designing for the 21st Century.
It needs to be about helping people find out what they love doing and how they can get paid for it.
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