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Automation could elevate caring roles

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Jo Swinson says caring roles, as the least likely jobs to be automated, could be valued more highly in future

Increased levels of automation in the workplace could have the interesting, perhaps unexpected, result of elevating the status of caring roles, according to Jo Swinson, former employment relations minister and junior equalities minister.

Speaking to HR magazine ahead of her panel discussion on the future of work at the CIPD conference in November, Swinson, who is also chair of the CIPD Policy Forum and director of Equal Power Consulting, said: “There have been various developments from the AI community but it’s pretty early days in terms of just being able to have a conversation [with a robot].

“Given that those who currently have these types of [caring] roles are the least well-valued and well-paid that’s going to be interesting… It’ll be interesting to see how we might combine improvements in robotics so that more value is placed on caring roles.”

Swinson added that the misperception of caring work as low skilled could also shift. “If you’re attending to people who are incredibly unwell that takes a significant amount of skill and energy,” she said.

She caveated though that the fallout of an increasingly automated future could instead be a continuation of the current gender imbalance.

“I wouldn’t say I’m absolutely optimistic. One of the most depressing scenarios would be if machines took on new roles and the pace of technology accelerated, and the only thing about the workplace that was familiar would be that women got paid less than men,” she said.

“It’s very possible that you could have a revolution where a lot of jobs go to the machines but jobs get created and we end up with a continuation where men get the better-paid jobs.”

Regarding the threat of mass unemployment that a heavily automated future presents, Swinson said: “There’s a big question mark around groups in the population not able to [take advantage of jobs that didn’t exist before]. The government will have a really important role, particularly in terms of skills and understanding what’s likely to be needed but also making lifelong learning even more of a reality.”

Swinson cited adaptability as a key skill schools will need to teach. She said that this requirement for greater flexibility and resilience presents a challenge where older generations are concerned.

“Young people today have grown up in a world of accelerating technology and so are willing to move around and embrace a portfolio of different roles at a much earlier stage in their careers," she said. "I think some of the challenges will be where people have been established in the labour market for a number of years.”