The fu­ture of our jobs: Should we worry?

A bal­ance be­tween hon­ing at­tributes that have al­ways been val­ued in the work­place and learn­ing to ac­quire new skills is needed

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As we nav­i­gate our way through the phe­nom­ena 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 no­body 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 Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment said that, us­ing a slightly dif­fer­ent method­ol­ogy, com­put­ers will be able to re­place only 9% of jobs world­wide, but will dra­mat­i­cally change an­other 26%.

Mar­ket re­search com­pany For­rester said that dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion will cre­ate 7% of new jobs but de­stroy 16% of the old ones, re­sult­ing in 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 needed to­day will not be re­quired 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 50 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 we haven’t got time to adapt, to come even up for air be­fore the next waves crashes upon us.

What does the fu­ture look like?

For a decade or two yet, hu­mans may 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 fact­based 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.

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:

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.

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 old­fash­ioned 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.

Skills are im­por­tant, core ca­pa­bil­i­ties are even more so. For decades, the at­tributes that were crit­i­cal to be­ing ef­fec­tive, ap­pre­ci­ated and suc­cess­ful at work have been “old-fash­ioned” virtues such as 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.

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.

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.

Di­ver­sify. 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 at some­thing, we need to ex­cel at it. And to re­ally ex­cel at some­thing we need to prac­tise and prac­tise and prac­tise. Mal­colm Glad­well sug­gested we need to de­lib­er­ately prac­tise 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.

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.

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.

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, and turn those weak­nesses into strengths.

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 10-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 at Wits Busi­ness School. Photo: Deb­bie Yazbek

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