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:

  1. Beware of predictions. Technological and social change happens unevenly, in fits and starts. Many of the predictions we read about will happen; some won’t. And those that do may happen sooner or later than expected. Don’t put off acquiring skills and experience and jump at opportunities that present themselves. Plan for the future – but live in the present.
  2. Learn how to learn. In times of change our ability to keep learning – to stay current and refresh our capabilities – is perhaps even more important than the particular things we learn. A lot of old fashioned teaching was about the transfer of specific knowledge. What is more important now is helping people help themselves to learn. We need to harness the ability to reinvent ourselves over and over, thereby staying relevant.
  3. Skills are important, core capabilities are even more so. For decades, the attributes that are critical to being effective, appreciated and successful at work have been “old-fashioned” virtues like being a great collaborator or team player; communicating effectively; taking the initiative; being persistent, dependable and resilient; displaying appropriate creativity; and, as ever, working hard. These attributes will stay central to career success.  
  4. The ‘STEM’ skills. For the next several years, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths will remain vitally important skills. These can be difficult subjects to study and some consider them to be dull, but they are at the heart of many growing job categories, and people who master these skills will never want for work. If we enhance our STEM skills we are enhancing our own opportunities in the future world of work.
  5. Get tech savvy. It’s really important to be able to use the tools that we have at our disposal, and the new ones that are constantly becoming available, to enhance our own productivity and effectiveness at work.
  6. Diversifying our skills means a wider diversity of opportunity for our careers, and a bit of risk management. We are living in the so-called gig economy which requires the balancing act of diversifying our skills with a determination to succeed in whatever we put our minds to. That said, it remains as true as ever that to really succeed ant something we need to excel at it. And to really excel at something we need to practice and practice and practice – Malcolm Gladwell suggested we need to deliberately practice something for 10 000 hours to become world class at it. And to do this we need to focus. We can diversify, but we need to be careful of not being mediocre at many things at the expense of excelling at a few.
  7. Do meaningful work. One person’s meaning may not be meaningful to another, but research shows time and again that meaningful work is a critical part of leading a happy and fulfilled life. Even if we perceive our careers to be risky or poorly paid, or if we feel we have stagnated or are being under-appreciated, if we find our work to be meaningful and purposeful, it is a source of motivation and satisfaction.
  8. Understand future demand. Research suggests that jobs that are less likely to be performed by a machine in the short to medium term are high in three dimensions: social or relational intelligence; creative intelligence; and manual dexterity. Careers that emphasise these will be less vulnerable to automation and may well see a growth in demand in the future.
  9. Be human. The customers we serve are people who make decisions based more on how they feel than on what they know. To be effective in the workplace, we need to be able to engage the hearts, minds and souls of those around us. In other words, social skills are still really important. People follow people. People make decisions based on what they feel, rather than what they know. Let’s celebrate our humanity in all its imperfections, turn those weaknesses into strengths.
  10. Be heard. What is also important as this journey unfolds is that it is really important to be heard; that we are part of the conversations. The digital world is exposing new frontiers in ethics, policies, and governance.  How do we respond? We need to make our voices heard in terms of how our societies respond and how our businesses should respond. We are not just victims in this, we do have the ability to shape our future.

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.