Disruption? Bring it on
The world of work is changing, and there are some who believe it’s not for the better. It is true that there are proportionately fewer full-time jobs in the workforce today than there were a generation ago. And there are more casual jobs today than there were just a decade ago. But I am convinced that these changes will deliver a more prosperous society.
Each technological advance has yielded a better quality of life. The shift from agriculture to industry transformed Australia in the early 20th century; China is going through a similar transformation now with its rural-to-urban migration. A job in a city factory in China today, or in Australia years ago, was always more likely to deliver a better quality of life than could subsistence agriculture.
I think the same is broadly true for digital disruption. There are those who fear the coming of the machines, the rise of artificial intelligence, the loss of job security. What will we do when the work is done by others or by machines? The same concerns were raised by the Luddites in rural England in the early 19th century. And yet over time agricultural workers reskilled, production increased, new jobs were created.
There is no job security and there has been no real job security for any worker in any industry in any period of history. What there is might be described as periods when markets, resources and political stability come together for a number of years, maybe even for decades. We have come through just such a period, from the end of World War II to the global financial crisis 10 years ago.
What lies ahead is a different world in which work is mobile and fleeting and where workers are required to continuously learn new skills, to meet and integrate with new people, perhaps of different cultures, and to adapt to new management systems. Some jobs are quickly transformed, such as that of the bank teller, whereas others, such as school teaching, will be slower to change.
For those whose workplace culture comes from that rare post-war period of stability, the future can be terrifying. But for others, generally the young, the skilled, the selfconfident and the articulate, the future of work is – or should be – genuinely exciting.
I don’t think the next generation of workers wants to be tied to the same employer, let alone the same job, for years. Rather than being regarded as a badge of honour, job loyalty may be seen as evidence of not being able to think laterally or of being resistant to change.
Workers in the 2020s won’t want to commute, at least not long distances. Many won’t have a driver’s licence. The Census shows that the proportion of people working from home, excluding farmers, is 4 per cent and that hasn’t altered in 20 years. I think workers like collaborating and finding solutions with colleagues that have a commercial or a practical value.
And, so, in this flexible, movable, evolving world of work, what is required to ensure success? The best strategy for kids is to complete high school and to get some form of technical training or further education. The best advice for parents is to cultivate resilient kids who can deal with disappointment, who know how to get along with others and who aren’t treated as overly “special” (which does little more than make the parents feel good about themselves).
For all its uncertainty, the new world of digital disruption is a better option than the current world of repetitive work that can be done better by a machine or an algorithm.