This is the Instagram generation. We prefer ordering at the push of the button, not face to face. Virtual gaming and Netflix are our favourite hobbies. My age group is by far the most comfortable with the radical changes the technological revolution has brought to the table. However, we should approach developments in automation and artificial intelligence with caution; Generation Z is the age group most likely to suffer the harsh, unintended consequences that could arise from their increasing importance.
When large sectors of the labour market become automated, jobs could start to evaporate, and it is young people who may pay the price. The 2018 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report found that younger generations are the most vulnerable to automation:
“A striking novel finding is that the risk of automation is the highest among teenage jobs … In this sense, automation is much more likely to result in youth unemployment, than in early retirements”.
In the short-run, this automation could exacerbate inequality by reducing the immediate income of the newly unemployed. Larger problems arise, however, when a skill gap is created between teenagers and their parents because teens haven’t been able to accrue the versatile talents a steady, low-paying job, such as working in the fast-food industry will give them. The result is that young people could find it more difficult to take the first step towards a successful career.
But, in the midst of the discussion about the future of automation, there remains an issue which has fallen under the radar: a major crisis in mental health among young people. Worldwide, 10 to 20 per cent of children and adolescents suffer from mental illnesses – many of whom do not receive adequate treatment.
Indeed, there is vast scientific literature, including research from the Journal of Public Health, outlining how work creates a sense of purpose and meaning. For instance, a study published by Social Science & Medicine found that the skyrocketing number of suicides during the 1997-98 Southeast Asian economic crisis was attributed to rising unemployment.
As someone who battles mental illness myself, I know how crucial meaningful work can be in reminding yourself that life is worth living and that you do make a difference in the lives of many.
For a generation of people who are already struggling with their wellbeing, embracing further automation may only worsen the mental health issues that already plague us. That is why it’s essential that there is an effective economic policy in place to put young people in a strong position to compete within the labour market, while also prioritising their wellbeing. The solution to these demands may well come in the form of universal basic income (UBI).
The Institute for Public Policy Research found that the economic dividends of automation are likely to flow to technology owners. This would create a polarisation between high and low-skilled workers. UBI – an unconditional, non-means-tested payment – could provide the security for people to train up and gain new skills in order to access higher paying and more enjoyable jobs.
UBI could also have a role in funding retraining too. Technology’s never-ceasing evolution requires the rapid acquisition of new skills. Indeed, the chief economist at the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, has already put forward a suggestion for “multiversities”, where there would be opportunities for lifelong learning. This would involve multiple age-entry points, rather than focusing specifically on the young. But, clearly, this wouldn’t come cheap, so a stable stream of unconditional income would go a long way in ensuring that workers have a robust skill set in a competitive labour market.
Of course, with UBI, young people could finally feel free to follow their dreams with less worry about the financial risk involved. Many artists in the music industry, for example, find that there usually isn’t a stable flow of income available. The 2009 Artist’s Survey highlighted that less than 20 per cent of artists worked full-time on their creative practice. Support for these types of creative outlets is vital for maintaining a mentally stable young constituency. Indeed, a 2017 UBI trial in Finland demonstrated this to be true, as participants reported reduced levels of stress as a result of the policy.
There is absolutely no doubt that automation and AI will transform the world of work. But the transformation young people need is one that will allow for happier lives, less stress, and a straight path to the future that they want. This new industrial revolution could become an unprecedented force for good. However, current policy runs the risk of leaving people rudderless and resentful, with the notion of youthful optimism becoming a thing of the past.
But that is far from an inevitability. UBI has the potential to make the most of the upcoming technological revolution, by enabling individuals to lead the lives that they desire. Productive and purposeful: we will never have had it so good.