Five big questions about how the increasing automation of work will affect our health

30 August 2019

Work is a key factor affecting people’s health, with issues such as fair pay, job security, and working conditions all impacting on how well people are able to live a healthy life. Indeed, the Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry has identified secure and rewarding work as a one of the key building blocks needed for a healthy life. 

The increased use of automation in the workplace in future has major implications for both the amount of work available and the nature of work people do. How these changes will affect people’s health has yet to be fully explored. This blog outlines some big questions about how automation may affect the health of the UK population.

1.    How will automation affect the labour market and people’s health?

Automation is likely to see many existing job roles becoming obsolete or changing dramatically. Research at Oxford University has estimated that over 170 roles had a 90% chance of being automated in the future. A survey of business executives by the World Economic Forum showed that nearly 50% expected a reduction in the full-time workforce by 2022 due to automation. 

McKinsey Global Institute also estimated that by 2030, up to 375 million workers across the world will need to switch jobs. However, this analysis also points out likely trends such as increasing demand for health care, and investment in energy and infrastructure, that could provide further opportunities for employment. 

It’s also highly likely that automation will change the nature of jobs that remain. This may make work safer by replacing high risk tasks, or more meaningful by automating less rewarding aspects of work. On the other hand it may also have negative impacts, for example through the use of automated algorithms to coordinate worker’s activities thus reducing the sense of ownership people feel about work and potentially harming people’s mental health and wellbeing.

2.    Who will be most at risk?

The major disruption to the types of jobs which are available means there will be winners and losers: those who benefit from new opportunities and those who struggle to make the transition. 

It’s likely automation could disproportionately affect those already experiencing deprivation and inequality. Employers choosing to shut down or relocate could lead to mass unemployment within particular communities, similar to that associated with pit closures in the 1980s. This kind of experience can affect whole households, with negative effects on child health, education and youth unemployment.

Analysis by the OECD suggests that there is a higher risk of negative effects in rural economies and areas with a high share of agricultural and manufacturing jobs. ONS analysis shows that the vulnerability to automation in the UK varies significantly by local area. It also shows that lower skilled roles are more susceptible to automation, with women, young people, and part-time workers most likely to work in roles that are at high risk of automation. 

3.    How might different generations experience these changes?

Adopting a life-course approach to policymaking means paying attention to the different needs of all age groups – including children, young people, adults of working age and older people. 

The Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry shows that access to work is a major concern for young people. Whilst youth unemployment is currently low, the quality of that work, and whether it supports their long-term health, raises serious questions. 

Understanding their aspirations, providing appropriate skills development and ensuring that the jobs market provides good opportunities will be a core part of ensuring a positive outlook for the future. The increasing focus on digital skills within primary schools is a good example of how the next generation is likely to be more prepared for a changing work landscape, but more will be needed. 

Older people on the other hand may face different challenges in developing new skills, and with further increases planned to the state pension age, this group is likely to be working for longer.

4.    What can be done to mitigate the negative impacts and harness the positive impacts?

The Health Foundation has already begun to think about how the health and care system can better prepare for the future and it seems likely that society as a whole will also need to respond to the challenge. 

The implications of such large numbers of people needing to find different work will require major policy focus. It will need deep-seated changes to education, with attention paid to both the hard and soft skills needed in the new era of automation, and new opportunities for lifelong learning. This will especially need to focus on people with low skills who may have fewer opportunities to retrain.

The changing nature of work is already encouraging policymakers and researchers to consider significant new areas of policy such as universal basic income (where unconditional payments are delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirements), though this would need to be included within a comprehensive policy framework. The idea of a reduced working week is also attracting attention as a way to fairly distribute work in response to changes in technology. 

There remains significant debate about the extent to which these types of interventions can address the coming changes. There is much more to consider, including issues such as wages, worker negotiation and regulation around the use of technology in the workplace. 

5.    What are the implications for the United Kingdom?

While we can’t predict exactly what the future will hold, there is a need for more research into the implications of increased automation, and governments and organisations will need to develop their ability to respond to these challenges. This includes identifying issues, managing complex transitions, and engagement across multiple sectors. Further work will need to clarify whose responsibility it is to take action and in what ways different actors can come together to co-create the solutions.

The development of Local Industrial Strategies in the UK provides a way for local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships to engage in the questions raised by this blog. But the extent to which they are prepared for this challenge remains unclear.

The UK’s ability to make the most of the changes ahead will rely on society’s ability to engage with the transition. The government will need to help people develop new skills and connect them with opportunities, and make sure the welfare system is equipped to deal with any challenges people may experience. That means engaging across sectors in a way that places the health of the population (and especially vulnerable groups such as young people and people with low skills) at the centre of the policy agenda. 

The Health Foundation aims to contribute to this agenda. The Shaping Health Futures programme will provide new thinking and analysis on some of the key issues shaping health and health services over the next 10-25 years. We are also working on how business and economic strategies can promote health and reduce health inequalities. 
 

Yannish Naik (@healthyyan) is Senior Policy Fellow – Public Health at the Health Foundation. With thanks to Martina Kane and Genevieve Cameron.

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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