This week I am going to the launch of a new movement / association / trade union /all of the above called GR8 Support. It’s designed to bring support/ care workers together, to raise the profile of support workers (initially aimed at workers supporting people with learning disabilities, but the principles are the same whoever is needing / receiving support). These workers do one of the most sophisticated jobs imaginable. Support work is teaching, befriending, enabling, facilitating and safeguarding all wrapped up in one. It requires endless minute decision making about how and when and if to intervene. It is highly skilled and highly pressured. It requires empathy, responsibility, teaching skills and that competence beloved of management trainers, emotional intelligence. So, it ought to be highly regarded and very highly paid. Of course, it isn’t. Along with social work, nursing and teaching support / care work is not very valued at all (it’s different in Finland where teaching is seen as a very high status occupation. I wonder if that has anything to do with the consistently high standards of Finnish schools? Just wondering….). Support workers are often paid minimum wage, given zero hours contracts and seen as endlessly replaceable and expendable. Even organisations that do better than this, and there are many, of course, don’t / can’t remunerate care work on the same level as managing a hedge fund or investment portfolio.
But automation may be about to turn all this upside down. A lot of jobs that currently require highly valued skills may shortly be taken over by machines that can do them just as well, if not better, and certainly cheaper. For many of us the future is scary.
However, machines don’t have empathy and they can’t replace human contact. Those jobs that cannot be done without tenderness, kindness, sensitivity and subtlety may just be the ones that survive the cull. And if we want to start preparing for the brave new world we could do well to start by learning from the workers who have cultivated these un-replaceable, and perhaps soon to be highly desired skills.