Which jobs might soon be computerised away?

I used to go into a supermarket and pay a person. Now, I swipe items across a screen, fail to balance them in the small space provided and tut impatiently while I wait for a real actual person to come and confirm that I look old enough to buy a bottle of wine (I do). I have been waiting for the shout out from the unions about what surely must be a massive source of job losses.

Recently I came across some research from Frey and Osborne (no, not that one) of Oxford University, summarised in this article in The Economist, estimating the probability that computerisation will lead to job losses within the next two decades:

Recreational therapists 0.003

Dentists 0.004

Athletic trainers 0.007

Clergy 0.008

Chemical engineers 0.02

Editors 0.06

Firefighters 0.17

Actors 0.37

Health technologists 0.40

Economists 0.43

Commercial pilots 0.55

Machinists 0.65

Word processors and typists 0.81

Real estate sales agents 0.86

Technical writers 0.89

Retail salespersons 0.92

Accountants and auditors 0.94

Telemarketers 0.99

Overall, Frey and Osborne estimate that a massive 47 per cent of US jobs are at risk – and find that lower paid jobs requiring lower educational attainment have a far higher probability of being affected by computerisation.

The Economist article on the future of work that features this research ends by saying this:  ‘society may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.’ Yet, if society can ensure a living wage for all and distribute some of the gains of the skilled, sharing of available work could also deliver all the benefits of a shorter working week for all.

Many places already have a shorter working week

Back from my long summer break to find New Economics Foundation (NEF) announcing that “the working hours debate is now well and truly mainstream”. It must be time to get stuck in again…

NEF have found that there are a whole host of examples of experiments in shorter or different working hours from around the world. For example:

  • Gothenburg, Sweden is trialling a 30 hour week for public sector workers – without reducing their pay. This is arranged as five six-hour days.
  • Staff working for Chicago software company 37signals do a 32 hour four day week for six months of the year. This company also offers staff ‘a month on your own’ for them to develop their own ideas.
  • Germany has run a policy of short-time work through the recession, to allow employers to share available work between employees. Firms could cut working time by up to 50% with the government then reimbursing up to two thirds of lost wages.
  • Finland has for decades operated a paid leave scheme, where employees can take up to a year’s leave, funded by a mix of employee, employer and state, and an unemployed person fills the role temporarily, gaining skills and experience. The leaver-taker receives a higher allowance if they use the time to do vocational training.

NEF are building a database of such examples; read the full blog on their findings, Around the world in a shorter working week.

Companies and doctors and unions

When you start to focus on an issue, it suddenly seems as if everyone is talking about it. But the last couple of weeks reallyhave been extraordinary for the shorter working week, with top people from Google, the medical profession and unions all saying how desirable it would be.

It has long been known that Google allow employees a regular day to be creative around their jobs, but Google’s co-founder Larry Page has now gone a step further and supported a shorter working week – “the idea that everyone needs to work frantically hard to meet everyone’s needs is just not true.”

Top public health doctor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said outright that the UK should switch to a four day working week, to combat stress, give people more time with their families or exercising, and reduce unemployment. This, he said, would help to correct “a maldistribution of work.”

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has also been supportive, saying “Too few people in the UK are able to work the hours they want and need…But there’s also a growing problem with excessive working hours, with millions of employees under real pressure as they attempt to balance work with their everyday lives”. Senior Unison Scotland figure Dave Watson has also blogged supporting the case for a shorter working week.

Support is building, discussion is spreading…

Nice if you can afford it…?

Fewer hours at work? Choking on your breakfast? Spluttering into your coffee? Nice if you can afford it! For many the shorter working week is just a pipe dream. Many people need every available hour of work, just to get by.

Yes. To make the shorter working week possible for everyone, some other pretty major policies would have to change. The minimum wage would have to become a living wage, and a living wage while working fewer hours. And we would finally, finally have to tackle the fact that a decent home is unaffordable for many people. This is no small endeavour.

However, moving towards a shorter working week could actually help us move towards a more equal society, with more people in jobs that provide a decent living. We can’t wait until fair wages and affordable housing have become a reality: changing the way that we share out work is part of the solution.

Firstly, we could be sharing the available work. At the moment, while many have so much work it leaves little time or energy for the rest of their lives, a significant number – especially of young people – have no work at all. Surely it would make more sense to share around the work available at any one time, than leave a minority of people without any possibility to earn their own income. Economist Juliet Schor (cited in NEF’s 2012 briefing About Time – Developing the case for a shorter working week) has said, “The UK has entered a period of high and chronic unemployment and underemployment…work time reduction becomes the key to restoring balance in the labour market.” Moreover, people on higher incomes are tending to work longer and longer hours, while others have less work than they need or none at all. Schor continues, “This is a kind of structural unemployment that occurs when working hours are too high. Redistribution of hours is therefore central to a programme leading to more egalitarian distribution outcomes.”

Secondly, people who want shorter hours for reasons such as their health or their caring responsibilities are in a bottleneck of low paid part time work with no progression opportunities. In London, for example, the London Assembly has called on the Mayor to create 20.000 specifically part time jobs across the income spectrum. There isn’t a shortage of part time jobs – there is a shortage of decently paid part time jobs. According to Building a Sustainable Quality Recruitment Market, a 2012 report from Women Like Us/Timewise Foundation, in London there is only one part time vacancy advertised that earns the full time equivalent of £20,000 or more for every 18 similarly paid full time vacancies. In contrast, there are seven lower paid part time vacancies for each of those paid above £20,000. Part time opportunities for all those who want them, across the income scale, would actually increase rather than decreasing equity.

Thirdly, there is nothing sacred about a five day working week, and earlier reductions in working hours were down to the efforts of the unions and their working members. In the 19th century, it was thought that society could only possibly work with a six day working week, and much longer working days. Edward and Robert Skidelsky put this as follows. “The reduction of the working week was one of the great achievements of 20th-century social democracy. A labourer in mid-Victorian Britain could expect to work 60 hours a week – 10 hours a day, six days a week – from adolescence till death. Sundays alone were left free for chapel or gin. The early trade union movement campaigned vigorously against this regime with the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”. Its efforts bore fruit. By 1930, weekly hours in Britain had sunk to 47; by 1980, they were down to 40.”

Fourthly, sometimes the idea of more time to pursue one’s own passions is written off as ‘middle class’. The ability to afford to do this may indeed be the privilege of the better-off in our highly unequal society, but the idea that only a privileged portion of society has passions they want to pursue is laughable. It’s a recent thing for it to be regarded as middle class. Just look at the historical roots of football, or growing food on allotments, or brass bands or male voice choirs. And if you have a low income the need to rely on and give to the community is pressing.

Finally, an idea needs to be on the public agenda before it can become reality. It needs to be discussed and debated. Distant as their realisation may seem, the ideas of a living wage and affordable homes for all are at least on the public agenda. In this sense, the idea of a shorter working week is behind these other areas of policy, and needs to catch up.

Anyone can now ask to work flexibly…

It’s a day to celebrate! From today, all UK employees have the right to request flexible working  – in any form – it can be reduced hours, job sharing, working from home, or whatever variation is appropriate for the particular circumstances. Up to today, this right has existed but only for parents and carers. Now, anyone who has already worked for their employer for six months can make a flexible working request, whether their reason is caring responsibility, a thirst to increase their skills through training or education, a to great idea to start their own business, a desire to contribute more to the local community, a wish to slow down later in life but continue working, or simply a change the balance of their life.

This new policy seems like a real step in the right direction in the UK. The recognition that everyone, not just parents and carers, may want or need to work flexibly is very welcome. This kind of policy seems to have been one of the main factors that enabled the Dutch to achieve the lowest working hours in Europe.

However, the change comes with a sting in the tail. Everyone can now make requests to work flexibly, but previously when parents and carers made these requests, employers had to respond according to a strict process and employees had a right of appeal if their request was turned down. Now, that process and right of appeal are gone, replaced simply by an employer obligation to respond ‘in a reasonable manner’ to requests. Details are here.

Nevertheless, the broadening of the right to make requests is a very welcome and important change. It will be interesting to see how requests for flexible working increase, what proportion succeed, and the resulting changes in UK work culture and norms, over the coming few years. Perhaps this will be the day we look back to as the day everything changed.

Who cares, cooks and cleans?

Female friends and colleagues are asking whether a shorter working week would just reinforce the status quo where men expect to do more paid work and women to do more unpaid care work.

This gendered division of labour certainly exists. On average, British men of employment age worked nearly double the number of hours  women worked (in 2005 when the last British Time Use Survey was done). And British women spend on average about twice as much time as men on housework and caring activities. However, while the gender gap in domestic work is gradually narrowing, European women who work full time still also do two thirds of the housework, according to an ESRC study.

If more women than men took advantage of a move towards shorter working hours, a perpetuation of these inequalities could clearly happen. And it does seem to have worked that way in the Netherlands. However, things could also work the other way round. A shorter working week as the norm for everyone should provide an opportunity to make inroads into the massive social problem that women still do way more than their share of cleaning, cooking and caring. In France, a year after the government introduced a 35-hour working week, a large survey showed that almost as many men as women were spending more time with their children than previously; people with young children were the group most in favour of the change.

Meanwhile, men point out that the perceived male responsibility to be the ultimate reliable breadwinner is not all pure joy either… but that this sense of responsibility is deeply engrained and hard to shift. But nevertheless, a shorter working week as the norm for everyone must surely provide a better opportunity to equalise things between men and women, both by opening up the possibility of a greater balance for both those who currently do long hours of paid work and those who currently spend all or most of their working time on unpaid domestic work. On its own it would not shift centuries of conditioning, but it would open up paths for other changes in social norms.

Gendered expectations around paid and unpaid work are certainly (still) very much with us. My own experience bears this out. When I went back to work four days a week after having my first child, no one batted an eyelid at my ‘going part-time’ and some asked whether I found 4 days rather too much work. In contrast, my partners’ 4-day week attracted slightly surprised admiration, and even from one person in our lives the comment “but can a man really do that to his career?”

To my mind, though, none of this means that women should strive to equal men’s working hours. It means that policies to move towards a shorter working week for all must be designed with care and attention towards the possible differential impacts on women and men. And that we also need to continue to work on the social norms that underpin gender inequalities.

Thank God it’s Friday…

I read recently that a fashion is sweeping UK companies, to allow employees Friday afternoons off in summer (they make the time up doing longer days the rest of the week). It got me thinking…

A friend works in a medium sized company in the City. She says that, in her company, it is accepted that there is a different feel to Fridays. People who are part time don’t work, there are few meetings, and lots of full timers catch up on stuff generated during the week, perhaps working at home.

Another friend recently organised a policy seminar… on a Friday, on the grounds that people are more likely to attend something involving interesting food for thought rather than progress to the next deadline on a Friday. One of the attendees, a former government minister, left early… because she had had enough? No, because she was picking up her children from school.

I go to a pilates class on Friday mornings, along with many local friends in Harringay, my home district of north London. The instructor is taking a break to have a baby. She tried to find an interim replacement, but she couldn’t. All the instructors she knew are chock-a-block booked up on Fridays. This is must be because many people (who are not pilates instructors) are not at work and can go to pilates classes.

Perhaps the shorter working week is closer than I thought.

The only part time economy in the world?

In the Netherlands, average working hours are only about 30 per week – the highest rate of part time work among rich nations. It also has the lowest proportion of involuntary part time employment, as a share of all part time workers. The Netherlands has been called ‘the only part time economy in the world’. How has this happened?

By the late 1990s, the Netherlands had developed a slightly different working pattern from the EU average. 55% of EU households without children had two earners, and this number, at 60%, was similar in the Netherlands. But just 20% of Dutch households had two full time workers, compared with 37% across the EU. Conversely 35% had one full- and one part-time worker (“one and a half households”) – this proportion was 17% for the whole EU. Households with children had roughly similar proportions – apart from a very markedly low number with 2 full time workers – only 4%, compared with 29% for the whole EU.

This situation marked a rapid period of change over the previous 20 or so years. This change has been attributed to a relatively late rise in female workforce participation. There was no Dutch tradition of married women working full time, as for example in France or Belgium. This suggestion is borne out by the late-90s figures gender breakdown. In the Dutch one-and-a-half households, a woman was the full time earner in only 1-2 per cent of cases. Dutch women remain more likely to reduce their working hours

The Netherlands has made an important policy choice, supporting its trend towards lower working hours. The Working hours Adjustment Act 2000 gives all Dutch workers the right to request to change either from full- to part-time or vice versa. The employer can only refuse if they can demonstrate significant business or organisational interests in the way. There is also a requirement for equal treatment of part- and full-time workers, in Dutch law and also in the European Part-Time Workers Directive of 1997.

In 1997, former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers said, “It is true that the Dutch are not aiming to maximise gross national product per capita. Rather, we are seeking to attain a high quality of life, a just, participatory and sustainable society that is cohesive… While the Dutch economy is very efficient per working hour, the number of working hours per citizen are rather limited… We like it that way. Needless to say, there is more room for all those important aspects of our lives that are not part of our jobs, for which we are not paid and for which there is never enough time.” Hurray to that. And the Dutch economy has not collapsed, either.

Sources for this blog:

J Visser (2002), The first part time economy in the world: a model to be followed? Journal of European Social Policy 12:23

A Hayden (2013), Patterns and purpose of work-time reduction -a cross national comparison, in A Coote and J Franklin (eds), Time on our side – why we all need a shorter working week, New Economics Foundation

How to get a school governed

School governors are in the news, and Michael Gove is off his head to dismiss us (especially with his urging of governors to stop singing kum-bi-yah so much. What was that about? Mr Gove, I can assure you I have not sung that particular song a single time since I left primary school myself.)

Being a school governor is a necessary check and balance to ensure accountability in schools, and a role that carries real responsibility. In the last year, I have overseen the transition of my kids’ primary school to co-operative status, and appointed a new headteacher.

Being a governor is rewarding. It is the kind of involvement in the local community that knits communities together, and allows different groups of people to contribute and get to know each other. It is surely the very kind of community involvement the government used to be so keen to promote. Remember the ‘big society’, anyone? And it is also the clearest example of user participation and involvement in public services, something successive governments have intermittently thought crucial to society. They are right.

But it is time consuming. To be an effective governor, you have to get to know what is happening in the school and create ongoing, trusting relationships with the staff, with other governors and with parents. Obvious really – you can’t be effectively involved in leading an organisation unless you know it and its people. You need to visit during the school day, to see the school in action, and to help with management tasks like interviewing for new staff or tribunals. And to have a real positive impact, you have to get involved in projects taking the school forward, which might involve anything from raising standards in literacy lessons to getting a new sports hall built to ensuring admissions policies comply with the law to improving the school dinners. A wide range of skills and experience are needed on a governing body!

How people are supposed to do this on top of working five days a week is beyond me. Yet, many of the people who do work five days a week have exactly the skills that schools are crying out for, and many of these would love to use these skills in their local community – but can’t, because they don’t have time.

A shorter working week would make it all possible.