Our Employment Partner, Richard Thomas, discusses a new study that suggests that a rise of robotics will upend laws and lead to human job quotas

The “Rise of the Robots” could be a title from a science fiction novel - but it is anything but fictional. There is no doubt that in the last 20 years a large number of ‘blue collar’ jobs have been lost to increased automation and it is likely that a large number of ‘white collar’ jobs may also go the same way in the next 10-20 years. Consider for a moment the Black Cab Driver. It used to be the case that a budding Black Cab Driver would need to achieve ‘the knowledge’ by cycling around all of London’s streets to obtain a mental recall of their names and layout. This exercise resulted in the driver obtaining his own ‘intellectual property’ (his knowledge) which he could then use to charge people who needed a cab. Then along came a smartphone and Uber and the need for all that ‘intellectual property’ disappeared overnight. Fast forward maybe a few years and driverless cars will mean that there is no need for a driver at all. How quickly will these changes take effect? It is difficult to be certain. We have had cash points or ‘holes in the wall’ for over 30 years now but there is still a need for bank tellers, although the rise of online banking has resulted in many banks leaving the high street with consequent significant redundancies.

Despite the erosion of these jobs by new technology, the labour market in both the UK and the USA remains relatively buoyant and mass unemployment (the scourge of the 1970’s and 1980’s) is thankfully no longer present.

Employment Protection legislation has been in place since the early 1970’s but the world of work has changed beyond recognition since then. In the 1970’s you were either directly employed by an employer who paid your wages and made contributions to your company pension scheme or you were unemployed. Fighting the scourge of unemployment was a fundamental priority for both Labour and Conservative governments in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. However, in the period 2000 – 2008 there was a significant rise in self-employed people and this trend continued after the Great Recession in 2008. There are now approximately 5 million self-employed people in the UK which compares to a total of 5.4 million working in the public sector.

Therefore the distinction is no longer between those who are employed and in work and those who are unemployed. There are a large and ever growing band of self-employed people in the workplace who are trying to adapt to the new challenges that the world of work and increased automation is throwing at them – some with more success than others. The problem is that the world of employment protection is still stuck in the 1970’s with - for example – the right not to be ‘unfairly dismissed’ applicable only to those who have been lucky enough to be directly employed by their employer for a period of at least 2 years.

This new world of work will need an entirely new set of employment protection practices if it is to provide people with some sense of security in the face of the oncoming technological changes. Without this new protection it is more than possible that the robots will simply take our work and provide ever greater profits to a small section of business owners whilst the rest of us face ever greater insecurity in work. The Matthew Taylor review will be reporting in June of this year on some of these issues and then the UK Government will need to give some significant thought to bringing employment protection out of the 1970’s and into the 2020’s.

Read more on robots in the workplace in Cate Oliver's blog here.