Friday, March 30, 2007

Milk into babies

In a recent article in Nature, Holmes and O'Connell discuss the depressing state of affairs for women in academia. One of the issues they raise concerns child-friendly policies at Universities:
More universities should provide paid family leave for graduate students and faculty members. Only one-third of PhD-granting institutions provide any sort of daycare for graduate students and most have no childbirth policy.
We're richer than we've ever been. We now have hourly productivity levels which would allow us to work less, at least for those critical years, the technology to facilitate flexible working, and the resources to build the infrastructure we need to make raising children really compatible with work. Yet basic things like good, onsite daycare remain a rare perk rather than the standard provision they could be. What is missing is the political and social climate to make it happen. Perhaps the very fact that we use phrases likes "child-friendly" says it all - when was the last time you heard of a "life-friendly" organization?

Part of the problem is that policies of this kind tend to be seen as leftist and uneconomic. But even if you discount all the non-monetary gains that would flow from a "family-friendly" re-thinking of how we work, the economic benefits are undeniable. Accounting for costs and benefits over a lifetime, there's surely no greater economic good than a well-raised child. Or, as Churchill famously put it: "There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies."

Friday, March 23, 2007

All under one roof

Parents of young children typically have a hell of a time looking after the kids, while balancing mid-career workloads. So they end up spending lots of money on day care, nannies, etc. Yet, in many cases, their own parents would gladly take over, at least for short periods. This seems like a double payoff: the work gets done and the person doing it enjoys it.

One way to make this happen more would be to think up a new kind of old-fashioned family home. Have grandma in her own mini "in-law" unit, so you can meet every day,or at least very often. But, crucially, make sure that physically and psychologically there's just enough distance to stop it feeling like a re-run of the kids teenage years.

Would this be so hard to achieve? I don't think so. We just need some creativity to re-imagine this most ancient of set-ups in a new way. Any ideas?

Robots can't cut hair

Year-on-year, advancing technology automates processes that once required human effort. This puts people out of work in one sense, but in another sense it frees up that same human effort for other things, which are often - though certainly not always - more pleasant or creative. Thus, while a generation or two ago I would almost certainly have been plugging away as a clerk in a monstrous Kafkaesque insurance firm, today I get to do fun research. Wait, I hear you say, there were scientists two generations ago, surely? Yes, but very few, and as a consequence, the only full-time ones were probably vastly more talented than I am, and probably luckier too.

In general, it's the things machines are bad at that become the work of tomorrow. Who would have thought, in 1950, say, that there'd be as many hairdressers as there are today? Hairdressing requires the kinds of motor skills and creativity that is hard to automate, and lots of people enjoy getting what were once movie-star-only treatments. Hence the trend.

But not all creative professions grow. Ones in which the product can be replicated by technological means can actually shrink. A classic example is musicians: once upon a time you had to hire one in order to even hear a tune, now you can put on a CD and listen to Herbie Hancock or Itzhak Perlman or whoever, which has increasingly put medicore players out of business.

So the formula is this: jobs which are both hard to automate and can't be easily replicated tend to be the ones that grow. With that in mind, what occupations might swell their ranks in the years ahead? Research (of course!), and I think especially applied and translational work, which there could be so, so much more of. But also less obvious things like personal services - cooking, surgery, hairdressing etc. Maybe personal shoppers: technology is making shopping for clothes harder, inasmuch as there more choice, so I think there might be a growing demand for experts who do it all for you. Professional childcare should rise: surely everyone wants a Super Nanny on call? Teaching should keep growing, at least until classroom sizes grow small enough that no one cares about further reductions, and demographic changes mean there aren't actually many kids to teach.

So close your eyes and wonder: what would you like to have done for you, if it were really cheap? Whatever it is, odds on your grandchildren will be doing it, having it done for them, or, if you're a really demanding dreamer, still be wishing for the same thing.