It’s pretty hard to suck the joy out of a visit to McDonalds, but the burger chain’s new automated ordering system does its best. Instead of placing your order with a human cashier, you tap a screen, swipe a debit card and are issued with a number. You then stand around for five minutes staring at some other numbers on a screen, as if participating in a bleak, beef-based game of bingo, before retrieving your prize from the counter.
These new machines will probably pay for themselves in a year or two. This could mean more staff are free to work in the kitchens, or it could be enabling management to reduce staff numbers and control the wage bill at a time of rising costs. Job losses are rarely welcome, though it is hard to defend low-waged, routinized work as good for its own sake. But the case for automation will only grow in coming years as machines become cheaper and more skilled.
The “march of the machines” has been much discussed in recent years, but there are reasons to think – in London at least – that the next few years may see dramatic change. Centre for London’s new report, Human Capital, suggests that Brexit could accelerate the process, putting pressure on wages and staffing levels in a city where one in seven workers is from the EU. Accommodation and food is one of the sectors where the impact could be felt soonest: the sectors have many overseas workers, are low-paid and include many routine tasks that could easily be supplanted by machines.
But walk the streets of London, and you get a slightly more nuanced picture. While mid-market chain restaurants are being squeezed – Jamie Oliver’s Italian and Byron Burgers are two recent casualties – other parts of London’s food scene are booming: the richly carpeted and glistening gastronomic temples of Mayfair have never been busier and, on the other side of town, artisanal food stalls and diners pop up daily in the streets of Shoreditch and Peckham.
What these restaurants have in common is their focus on personalised services, dinner-jacketed or man-bunned, and bespoke food production. There may still be space for automation behind the scenes (though occasional rows about off-site food preparation suggest that many customers still see it as cheating), but the core of London’s food industry seems to involve the combination of social intelligence, creativity and complex manual dexterity that is still beyond the reach of robots.
You can tell a similar story for retail. The impact of internet shopping has already extracted a toll on big box retailers like Toys R Us. But Central London retail seems to be more resilient, despite the heavy blow dealt by business rate rises. Again, London offers something different – a personal experience, a bespoke experience, a social experience – from the ease and economy of ordering online. The one does not supplant, but rather complements the other.
All of which suggests that parts of London’s economy may not automate as quickly as generalised data on the susceptibility of different occupations suggest, even in sectors that look like prime candidates for disruption. The machines may take over burger-flipping, but dover sole-filleting will prevail.
That said, while we may not mourn the loss of low-skilled jobs, we should be more worried about what happens to the people who lose those jobs. Some will find new roles in the same industry – even McDonalds today has a more complicated menu that requires more staff to cook, if not to take orders. Other may quickly adapt, particularly in London, where more than 50% of workers have a degree, and find new work.
But we need to focus on those who struggle more: the devolution of adult skills budgets to the Mayor from next year provides us with an opportunity to rethink how training and learning are managed in London. Who would have thought 30 years ago that “safe” professions like accountancy would be under threat, while designers and personal trainers would be in ever higher demand? Our system needs to move away from the model of a one-time spell at university or college fitting you for a lifetime’s work, to reflect the fact that most of us will change our jobs several times in our working career: we need to be able to adapt, to learn new skills, to redirect ourselves as the next opportunities arise.
Richard Brown is research directer, Centre for London. This article draws on evidence from Centre for London’s latest report, Human Capital, supported by and produced in association with EY. Previous articles by Richard for On London are here, here and here. Photo: Westfield Stratford City Food Court (from Visit London).