The loss of 70,000 jobs in the retail industry in just three months is the latest sign of what the British Retail Consortium described as the “profound change” taking place on high streets across the UK. The BRC also reported that a third of retailers were planning to cut staff numbers in the next few months.
Retail is not exactly an unskilled job, something we tend to notice only in its absence as we grumpily complain about an unhelpful shop assistant who didn’t know anything about the goods on sale.
However, the rapidity of the shift from buying goods in physical shops to online ones means there is an urgent need for large numbers of people to find new skills for new sources of employment.
Without them, people who have made a living in retail for all of their working lives – many of them women – face a potentially bleak future. Online shopping might see an increase in warehouse workers and delivery drivers, but both jobs are all-too-closely associated with low pay and in-work poverty and their numbers will hardly replace those lost from our shops.
So there is a real need for retraining programmes on a massive scale. Some private companies will realise this but they cannot be expected to shoulder the burden entirely. It is precisely in situations like this that governments need to intervene to help our economy adjust to its new environment.
A decade of austerity following the 2008 financial crash led to a growing tide of public discontent in the UK and other parts of the world, fuelling the rise of right- and left-wing populists. It undoubtedly contributed to the Brexit referendum result, as well as the elections of Donald Trump as US President and Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Unhappy with the status quo, people have understandably been reaching out in different directions towards those who claim to have a solution to their woes.
In contrast to those previously on the political fringes, centrists have been slow to react and they need to start coming up with new ideas. A no-deal Brexit risks inflicting another major blow on the UK economy – possibly even as large as the one in 2008 – and the Age of the Internet could, if mismanaged, bring about a similar disaster.
However, it also brings considerable opportunities and government, business and workers all need to be open to the changes required to seize them.