Release Date: 20 January, 2020
The Future of our Jobs – Should we worry?
As we navigate our way through the phenomenon of digitisation and artificial intelligence (AI,) with new technologies constantly disrupting old ones, some compelling questions emerge.
Are we ready for the future world of work? Should we be worried about our jobs? What will the job market look like when our children grow up?
The truth is, no-one knows for sure. While it is a given that technology will continue to change the world of work as we know it, the question is: to what extent will today’s jobs fall away tomorrow?
When I say no-one knows for sure, a number of eminent research bodies have made their predictions - but when it comes to facts and figures, none of them agree.
The ‘conversation’ started in 2013 with research published by two Oxford university professors Michael Osborne and Carl Frey which said that by 2025 computers will be able to do 47% of the jobs in the US. Then a while later the OECD’s research organisation said, using a slightly different methodology, computers will be able to replace only 9% of jobs worldwide, but dramatically change another 26%.
Market research company Forrester then said that digitalisation will create 7% of new jobs but destroy 16% of the old ones, so a net loss of 9% of global jobs, while McKinsey research suggested that 30% of all hours worked globally will be automated by 2025, but only 5% of careers will vanish. The World Economic Forum has said that 35% of skills needs today will not be needed by 2020.
Finally, media publisher TechCrunch argues that AI and robotics will create more jobs, not mass unemployment — as long as we guide innovation responsibly.
So, there is no consensus on exactly how much of current work will be done by computers and by when. But there is absolute consensus that over the next several years, the workplace and the nature of work will change fundamentally, and the impact on us will be immense.
So how should we as individuals, and responsible leadership in organisations respond?
To consider our future, I find it useful to look back to the past. Through the various industrial revolutions, and especially the last fifty years of the computer revolution, the amount of work has actually increased. People said steam would do away with work; it didn’t. They said electricity would wipe out jobs; it didn’t. We expected computers to reduce the amount of work; but they haven’t.
But is it different this time?
What is different now is the rate of change and disruption. Previous technology revolutions have been spaced far apart enough for human beings to adapt. We are amazingly adaptive resilient creatures, but historically we have taken a generation or two to adapt. The current waves of change are breaking over us at seven and five and three year intervals, so that we haven’t got time to adapt, to come up for air, before the next waves crashes upon us.
So what does the future look like?
For a decade or two yet, humans will still be at the top of the pile. A very few of us, those in leadership roles, truly creative roles, those in algorithmic and complex design, and with what I call personal brands, will sit comfortably at the top of the new world of work.
But the vast majority of what we now call knowledge work, routine, methodological and fact-based work, will be done by computers. Some of them humanoid, but mainly just factories full of servers and storage. Not primarily because they are cheaper, but because they are faster, make fewer mistakes and scale quicker.
Then there will be a significant layer of work based on three competencies: creative intelligence, relationship intelligence and unstructured dexterity. These are hard for computers to get right just yet, so there will be a lot of scope for people in roles that depend heavily on these.
But most people in routine manual or knowledge work today, will be displaced into lesser skilled service or manual work, or no work at all. We have already seen this happening globally – the so-called hollowing of the work-force – and it’s going to accelerate.
So how do we prepare?
I was recently asked to come up with some tips on how to prepare for the future world of work: Here they are:
But having said all that – we have to be wary of ten point plans! These tips are not definitive by any means – they are simply meant to open up the conversation.
In equipping ourselves with knowledge and understanding, we need to have a vision for what this future world of work looks like. Where do we see ourselves going as businesses and as individuals? We need the courage to do new things, learn new skills and acquire new capabilities using the attributes of hard work, problem solving, communication and critical thinking as the platform. It’s about a balance of treasuring those old-fashioned attributes and acquiring new capabilities. If we do that, then the future of work does not need to be something to worry about.
Professor Brian Armstrong, BCX Chair in Digital Business, Wits Business School.