The price of digital exclusion
We live in a world where the skills needed to thrive are changing fast. A combination of the rise of digital, artificial intelligence and the move to a global economy means that many previously ‘safe’ middle-income administrative jobs have either been offshored or computerised. Consequently commentators predict a hollowing out of the economy, with a greater number of low wage, low skill roles at the bottom and a smaller number of highly paid jobs at the top of the pyramid. This growing imbalance – and the potential social issues it brings – has been analysed and written about by a number of leading economists, such as Thomas Piketty, in his surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Despite what the nostalgic might think, this process is irreversible. Globalisation is accelerating and we can’t put the genie of artificial intelligence back into the box. So, how do we ensure that the UK workforce, and UK companies, are able to cope?
Go.On and On?
The key start point is to understand that the traditional model of learning a particular trade or profession and then spending your entire life working at it is no longer valid. Kids at school today will have multiple jobs during their careers, many of which may not even have been invented yet. Given that you can’t teach someone about a profession that doesn’t exist, the best approach is to provide the skills for lifelong, independent learning, such as self-reliance, adaptability, collaboration and other thinking skills.
The other vital element is to have an understanding, and mastery of, technology. To be fair, most children are miles ahead of their parents in this regard, and initiatives such as re-introducing programming to the school curriculum and low cost machines such as the Raspberry Pi are helping to drive these digital skills.
But the risk is that the current adult generation is falling behind. Research by charity Go.On UK has found that 12 million people (roughly a quarter of the adult population), lack the basic digital skills required today. 23% of small businesses also don’t have these skills. Go.On defines these skills in 5 areas:
- Managing information (finding, storing and managing online information)
- Communicating (communicating digitally, interacting online)
- Transacting (shopping/selling online, managing finances digitally, registering for government services)
- Problem-solving (using online resources to learn and solve problems)
- Creating (basic content creation, such as writing a social media post)
For many of us, these are not particularly complex or challenging, but failure to learn them not only hurts the chance of a good job, but also financially impoverishes people. If they aren’t able to buy goods online, they may well end up paying more, while they will be increasingly cut off from family and friends. At the same time a significant number of people are being held back, such as by slow internet access speeds, poverty and a lack of technology.
To show the scale of the problem Go.On has created a digital heatmap of the country, which combines local factors (infrastructure, education, demographics), with the percentage of those with digital skills. This shows the areas that are at risk of being left behind – “digitally excluded” – in the future. What is stark when looking at the map is how few regions and local authorities are safe – the vast majority have a medium to high likelihood of exclusion.
The Go.On findings must act as a wake-up call and a way of focusing efforts on increasing digital skills. My concern is that there doesn’t seem to be one body responsible for this – it is left to a combination of local authorities, central/regional government, schools, colleges, charities and even the BBC. While everyone should be responsible for learning basic digital skills, it needs a co-ordinated effort to level the playing field. Otherwise the imbalance shown in the Go.On map will actually widen, rather than shrink, hurting both individual prospects and the overall economy. It is time for rapid government-led action, and it needs to happen quickly.
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