As the chancellor, Philip Hammond busily focuses on getting the ink to dry on his budget document, to be revealed this week, he utters words on the big question of technology and jobs that show he has totally failed to grasp what’s happening. Mind you, the media misses the point too.
Interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show this Sunday, Mr Hammond said something he probably didn’t mean to say and got pilloried in the media. He also said something that he most decidedly meant, and in doing so, showed he totally failed to grasp the most important economic and social development in decades, and the media ignored him.
First the error. He said: “There are no unemployed people. We have created 3.5 million jobs since 2010. This economy has become a jobs factory.” Okay, that was a bit of a faux pax, of course there are unemployed people in the UK. Percentage unemployment is at its lowest level since the mid-70s, but there are still people desperately looking for work who can’t find a job. Whoops, silly Phil, what were you thinking?
But see those words in context. He was trying to argue that technology does not pose a threat to jobs, and got a bit carried away with his rhetoric.
Focus instead on his core point. He said: “I remember 20 years ago we were worried about what would happen to a million shorthand typists in Britain as the personal computer took over. Nobody has a shorthand typist these days.” It was at this point that he made his throwaway line about there being no unemployment. He didn’t mean to be taken literally.
What he was arguing, clearly and intentionally, is that technology is not a threat to the jobs market.
The US Secretary of State, Steve Mnuchin, made a similar argument earlier this year. At least superficially similar. He said of robots destroying the jobs market: “I think that is so far in the future — in terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs — I think we're, like, so far away from that. Not even on my radar screen.”
Drill down and you find an important difference. Mr Hammond wasn’t dismissing the importance of robots. He just has an optimistic twist. He said: “It’s a simple choice: either we embrace change or we try to hide from change and we allow ourselves to slip behind.”
In saying we need to embrace change, he is 100 per cent right.
But we need to understand thye change too, that way we can ensure change works to our benefit.
The technology revolution that is now gaining traction has no precedent. It is not like the computer revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, or the internet revolution of the noughties, or even the great industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. In terms of impact, it will be like all these revolutions rolled into one.
It may create a benevolent outcome, utopia writ large. It may not.
The greatest era of technology change to date, occurred between around 1860 and 1914. It was followed by a world war, the Great Depression and then another world war.
The pace of change will be unremitting, and the time to prepare is now. Yes, we must embrace it, but we must embrace it in the right way, Mr Hammond has not yet woken up to this, yet.