The robots are coming, but older workers have less to fear than they might think

We need to talk about economic change – how fast it’s happening and what it looks like when it does. Everyone says technology means economic change is accelerating, and that when the robots arrive the result is current, largely older, workers losing their jobs.

That kind of change can happen, especially if driven by more than technology. The speed, and geographical concentration, of the decline in coalmining saw many lose their jobs and struggle to find new ones. But thinking all change looks like that can be a poor guide to today’s world. If anything, economic change is slowing down rather than speeding up. The rate at which some parts of the economy grow and others shrink has actually fallen to a nine-decade low – the turbulent 1980s are a long time ago.

And the nature of economic change doesn’t fit the stories we tell. Recent research examines the fate of “teamsters”, who drove teams of animals pulling wagons in 19th-century America, following the arrival of the automotive truck, and considers the lessons for today’s drivers facing automated trucks.

Of course the number of teamsters fell, but more interestingly the average age rose. Why? Because much of the decline came from younger workers not entering the profession. In the UK this is why manufacturing employment among workers in their 60s was actually higher in 2018-19 than 1994-95, despite manufacturing jobs being down 38%. Older workers hang on in declining sectors, younger workers look elsewhere.

Economic change can bring big challenges, especially if it is fast, but it’s time we updated how we think about such change. If anything there’s too little of it in 21st-century Britain, and when it does happen younger workers read the writing on the wall.

Torsten Bell is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation. Read more at

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