Dis­rup­tion? Bring it on

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - Society - By Bernard salt ◖ mag­a­zine­feed­[email protected]­tralian.com.au ◗

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.

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