The end of jobs and the future of work

It seems that whatever the country, whatever the economic context, the critical question is becoming ever more pertinent; what is the future of work in an era of exponential technology development?

“Artificial intelligence is arguably the big game changer and becoming more commonplace. We already see narrow AI in use in internet searches, customer targeting applications, and in predictive analytics. But AI has much greater capability that will merge into every aspect of our lives in the future. Increasingly devices will learn more about us, provide an ever-increasing range of support and take on more of our tasks. We are automating a lot more activity in literally every sector and that is set to continue at an accelerating rate.” says Steve Wells of Fast Future.

The book, The Future of Business, edited by Rohit Talwar, identified thirty different trillion-dollar industry sectors of the future. The expectation is that these will be impacted radically by exponential technology developments. The sectors include:

  • Information and communications
  • Production and construction systems
  • Citizen services and domestic infrastructure
  • New societal infrastructure and services
  • Transformation of existing sectors such accounting, legal, and financial services
  • Energy and environment.

These industries all face huge risks – and huge opportunities.

Pew Research (2014) posed the question, “Will networked, automated, AI and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?” Their key findings were:

  • 48 per cent of respondents said that robots and digital agents will displace significant numbers of blue-collar and white-collar workers
  • Society would see increases in income inequality, significant numbers of unemployable people, and breakdowns in the social order
  • Conversely, 52 per cent said technology will not displace more jobs than it creates. Lost jobs would be offset by human ingenuity creating new occupations, and industries
  • This group also pointed out that current social structures (e.g. education) are not adequately preparing people for the skills needed in the future job market.

A 2013 study on the Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School explored the probability of computerization for 702 occupations and asked “Which jobs are most vulnerable?” The study found that 47 per cent of workers in the USA had jobs at high risk of potential automation. The most at risk groups were transport and logistics (taxi and delivery drivers), sales and services (cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers and accountants), and office support (receptionists and security guards).  The equivalent at risk workers were 35 per cent of the workforce in the UK and 49 per cent in Japan.

On the other hand, The World Economic Forum’s study into The Future of Jobs (2016) saw an increasingly dynamic jobs landscape. It estimated that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t yet exist, and that 3.5 times as many jobs could be lost to disruptive labour market changes in the period 2015–2020 than are created. While the study saw job losses in routine white-collar office functions it saw gains in computing, mathematics, architecture, and engineering related fields.

Alexandra Whittington of Fast Future believes that we could well see 80 per cent or more of current jobs disappearing in the next 20 years. Some will become obsolete, others will be fully or partially automated and in many cases tasks will be redesigned to eliminate the need for human input and decision making.

The big question here is whether these jobs will be replaced by the combination of entrepreneurship, increased investment in education and training, human endeavour and the rise of the six sector clusters described above? While we don’t know the answer, Talwar suggests we don’t have to wait – there is a lot we can do today to prepare for possible disruption:

“For example, at the individual level, there are new skills we need to think about acquiring now to equip us for the world of work in the future. We all like to work in a world that is calm, stable, and predictable but the reality is very different. That world is changing ever faster, so we need to become proficient at developing and working with a new set of survival skills for the 21st century which include foresight, curiosity, sense making, accelerated learning, with a tolerance of uncertainty, scenario thinking, coping with complexity, and collaborative working.”

Photo credit: Crew via Unsplash