Will middle-class job prospects be wiped out by the march of technology?

Qualifications are just scraps of paper if your career no longer exists...

Qualifications are just scraps of paper if your career no longer exists...

Technology and automation may have created a jobless middle class, who now face obsolescence as professional careers change beyond recognition, says Mark Kobayashi-Hillary.

Last week I wrote about the development of fast-growing nations such as Brazil, India and China, and what this means for those in the IT industry in countries such as the UK. This week I want to develop that thought a little further and ask if we are now living through a period of extreme 'creative destruction' - an idea popularised by the economist Joseph Schumpeter.

Creative destruction is the concept that before a system or process can be reformed it goes through a period of rapid and destructive change - just like the one we are experiencing in the IT industry because of the global economic slowdown.

But are we entering into an age where we shall create a new poor - a section of society that used to be employed and now finds that technology and automation have replaced that work, so the individuals involved are no longer employable?

Take a look at this recent story about unemployment from The New York Times. Often critics will cry out about jobs being sent offshore to cheap countries, or immigrants coming in to steal jobs. These cries catch the attention of the media and make for easy headlines.

job opportunities

Technology is taking over many of the job opportunities that used to exist
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

A profession becoming obsolete because of technological change is not as sexy and doesn't get people on the streets waving placards. But look at some of the numbers in the US. Forty per cent of all travel agents fired. Fifty per cent of print operators fired. Half of all US workers made redundant during the recent recession are still out of work.

In most cases, the IT industry is responsible for the creative destruction tearing through other industries. Think of just a few examples. Media is changing beyond recognition as traditional newspapers experiment with online paywalls and wave farewell to their traditional print formats.

Retailers have had to find what people will still shop for in person and how the bricks can compete with the price of the clicks. Take agencies dealing with property, travel and employment - all work better online with a single server replacing a national network of branches.

Many industries, such as banking, could be better defined as a branch of the IT industry because without IT there is no longer a banking industry. Techies might even ask why they missed out on the banker bonuses during the boom years.

The question for many is, how bad is this structural unemployment going to get - will people find their entire careers are now obsolete?

The internet has created a delivery mechanism allowing companies to find skilled workers wherever they are in the world. Highly skilled migrants are more able to fulfil the requirements of points-based immigrant systems the world over. We are all truly competing with the world for a job today and there is little sympathy from employers.

Students at university preparing to enter the labour market in the next year or so were born in 1990. This means that adult graduates are entering the workforce with no recollection of any time in their life before the internet and mobile telephony. They are truly a connected generation. But where does this leave those who are left behind?

Unfortunately, I can see no simple answer. The English singer-songwriter Billy Bragg once sang: "At 21 you're on top of the scrapheap. At 16 you were top of the class...". He was commenting on the hardship of British working-class life in the 1980s and the lack of opportunities for young people.

Who would have thought that the same words might now ring true about an educated middle class facing obsolescence as professional careers change beyond recognition? Qualifications are just a piece of paper if your career no longer exists.

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is the author of Who Moved my Job? and Global Services. He lectures at London South Bank University.