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Last Updated: Monday, 23 April 2007, 23:00 GMT 00:00 UK
The future is female, BT predicts
By Clare Davidson
Business reporter, BBC News

Ian Pearson
Men will have readjusting to do, says Mr Pearson

We have had the industrial age, we have had the information economy.

But now for something different: "the care economy", predicts BT's Ian Pearson.

And, says Mr Pearson assuredly, women - not men - are best suited for this shift.

After years of so called soft skills - such as communication - being sidelined, they will now play centre-stage.

"People will have to focus on being people, using their emotional skills," asserts Mr Pearson - with male confidence.

And, he insists, women are instinctively good at this.

'Logical deductions'

Mr Pearson's conviction in forecasting tomorrow's world is striking.

As a futurologist for British Telecom (BT), it is precisely what he gets paid to do.

Such a job title, with inevitable new age connotations, is prone to raise the odd eyebrow.

In his own words, Mr Pearson describes himself as "an engineer making logical deductions for tomorrow, based on things we can already see happening."

With a background in applied mathematics, he is just one of hundreds of researchers at BT.

Automation

Machines will be able to displace people from many of today's information economy jobs, just as they already have in agriculture and manufacturing, Mr Pearson predicts.

Softer interpersonal skills that cannot be replaced by a system will be better valued than the more rigid skills
Cheryl Clemmons, programme manager, Broadband East Sussex

"Physical jobs have been done by machines," he says, matter-of-factly.

A scene of road repairs at Shepherds Bush in west London exemplifies this - steamrollers dominate the scene, not men with pick-axes or hand held shovels as would once have been the case.

"More recently intellectual jobs have been done by software."

Consequently, traditional male jobs have been vanishing by the millions over the decades.

"Softer interpersonal skills that cannot be replaced by a system will be better valued than the more rigid skills," speculates Cheryl Clemons, a programme manager for Broadband East Sussex.

Mr Pearson echoes this, saying the health service is a case in point.

Consultants, male or female, are easier to automate than nurses.

A consultant is tantamount to "an expert system linked to a complicated brain", he says.

Nurses
Nurses have invaluable listening and caring skills, says Mr Pearson

But nurses' skills are all about being human, by listening and making patients feel better.

Machines are not a realistic substitute for child care, elderly care, nursing or other personal services, he says, questioning whether we would ever accept robots cutting our hair.

It only takes a glimpse of a typical hairdressers to see that the staff not only cut hair with great care.

They also listen attentively to their clients, offer advice, make tea or coffee to the exact strength desired, and discuss the latest newspaper headlines.

Although men do work in roles requiring such interpersonal skills, they are dominated by women.

Employers' values

According to Abbas Jaffer, Morgan Stanley's European head of diversity, European studies show that men and women have similar leadership behaviours, but women are typically better at coaching, mentoring and managing - and employers are increasingly keen on these skills.

A survey in 2006 showed that the UK employers value team-working above leadership in the soft skills they look for in a workforce.

This challenges the widely-touted notion that workers must be bent on attaining power to progress in business.

The survey, which was commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council, shows that of the soft skills UK employers desire, team-working ranks above leadership.

Some 61% of employers seek communication skills and 58% want team working, while only 28% highlight problem-solving on their wish-list.

Understanding money comes last on their wish-lists, at just 4%.

Industry shift

Entire industries have already been turned upside down by recent changes in information technology, and especially the advent of internet, says Ms Clemons.

Expedia and other travel sites are already being more personalised, so individuals choose what they want online, she says.

Computers with a "conscience" are already here says Mr Pearson.

Machines will drive a coach and horses through the information processing economy
Ian Pearson, Futurologist, BT

Iconic jobs, once thought impossible except by humans, have been already been replaced.

Workers on Royal Mail's night train witnessed the end of an era in 2004 when the firm said it would cease the mail sorting service, after more than 160 years.

By investing in hi-tech, automated equipment, Royal Mail could sort 30,000 letters an hour compared with just 3,000 on the trains.

Machines using software for accounts, personnel and time management will "drive a coach and horses through the information processing economy", says Mr Pearson.

Jobs in administration - whether for booking a cab or choosing a hotel, are falling in number and will continue to do so.

Mr Pearson is convinced that we will not need to call British Gas to find out what our gas bills say. The customer service will remain, but for more complex or urgent specific queries.

Meanwhile, both Mr Pearson and Ms Clemons say high-end, tailored information will have a premium, involving more interpersonal skills.

Pay implications?

"By 2020, most of us will be working in the care economy. Few information based jobs will be left. It will simply be cheaper and better to use machines in those roles", says Mr Pearson.

Yet Mr Pearson is quick to stress that despite this sea-change, men will be not left out entirely.

"We aren't unemployable. But we will have to rethink what we do."

Women will find their jobs displaced and will have to retrain, but far more men will be affected.

So if women have an easier time because their skills are more valued, does it mean they will also benefit financially?

Not necessarily, Mr Pearson warns.

There is nothing to guarantee female-dominated jobs will be better paid than they are now.

However, in theory if the cost of industrial machines and IT came down, a whole gamut of costs would plummet, from producing clothes or building houses to making computers.

So the jobs women do might not be paid more, but lower costs of living should make them better off.

"The future is female - and these changes are closer than many realize," says Mr Pearson.


SEE ALSO
Many graduates 'lack soft skills'
30 Jan 07 |  Education
Skills training 'needs shake-up'
05 Dec 06 |  Education
Plans to help women in workplace
11 Sep 06 |  UK Politics
Predictions for the mobile future
10 Jan 07 |  Technology

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