Sir Richard Lambert – The future of the world of work

15 April 2018

This article is a part of our Skills Young People Need for Work in 2030 campaign, helping share what skills leaders of today think are going to be the top ways young people can prepare for the careers of tomorrow. Be sure to follow #Skills2030 to see their top advice over March.


Sir Richard Lambert: The future of the world of work

‘Fundamental changes are taking place in the world of work. Smart machines driven by powerful computers are increasingly capable of taking on tasks that until recently have been confined to humans – think of self-driving cars, or the translation of Mandarin Chinese into English. On some estimates, roughly half the jobs currently being filled in the UK could be replaced in whole or in part by computers. So what skills will young people require in order to prosper in this rapidly changing environment?

Start by looking for clues in the experience of recent years. Over the past decade, highly skilled workers have taken an increasing share of the growth in jobs. Low skilled workers have not done so badly, either. It’s the medium skilled who have been having a hard time, especially in the years following the banking crisis. Looked at by type of occupation, senior managers, people in the professions and those in the caring and leisure industries have had more jobs to choose from. But secretaries and administrators, machine operatives and salespeople have all been squeezed.

They tend to be in the kind of jobs that smart machines do well:  the predictable and the routine, or those such as retail which are being turned on their head as customers move away from physical space and on to the Internet. Smart machines are not so good at simple tasks, like folding a blanket, or at work that requires the personal touch: there have never been more hairdressers at work than there are today. And they are not yet as good as humans at tasks that need high-level reasoning or imaginative leaps of thought.

When it comes to the traditional skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, computers can already beat humans at the first and the third, and are making big strides on the writing front as well. But they have found it much harder to master things that come naturally to humans, such as recognizing a face or relating to people in a sympathetic way.

Computers can increasingly match or beat us in cognitive ability – the brain-based skills that allow us to learn, remember and problem solve. But in the words of Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, “humans are known to possess an equally-important class of non-cognitive skills – self- confidence, self-esteem, relationship-building, negotiation skills, empathy. In studies of children, these non-cognitive attributes have been found to be as, if not more, important than cognitive competencies in enhancing jobs, incomes and well-being”.

It follows from this that the high-pay, high-skill jobs of the future may have as much to do with emotional intelligence and creative flair as they do with traditional measures of IQ. In that case our education system, which is heavily focused on traditional cognitive skills, will need to be rebalanced.

What might that require? A greater focus on creative skills, and on the original thinking that smart machines find it hard to replicate. An awareness of the great importance of life-long learning, and the encouragement of curiosity-driven study. Social skills, and an ability to communicate in a clear and open manner with different audiences.

Above all, humans have one great quality that machines will never be able fully to replicate. They can, if they so wish, behave in a way that will lead them to be trusted, something that machines – driven as they are by black boxes with unknown inputs – will never be able to match. Of course trustworthiness is a quality, not a skill. But as companies like Facebook are discovering, it will be even more important in the future than it has been in the past.’

Sir Richard Lambert, Chairman of the British Museum

Our Skills 2030 campaign will continue with more speakers across the UK. Keep up with the coverage of this talk series here.