By Arran Stewart & Steven O'Brien
It’s been a long time since speculating about the future of work has been this exciting. Today you don’t have to look hard to find a long list of strange jobs titles coming our way or a prediction that humans will be driven to robot labor-fueled workforce irrelevance. While there is a titanic economic transformation coming our way, it’s perhaps not as dire as some would have us believe and may only require a creative approach.
The robots are coming but less as a hostile takeover and more in that computers are now tools and agents, carrying out certain tasks with humanly unreplicable accuracy and ability. Simply put, we’re in the midst of another Industrial Revolution. Similar to when steam power and electricity transformed the way we worked and produced goods in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; the Internet, artificial intelligence, and robotics are changing the way we live and work today.
The massive tech boom in the early aughts gave rise to the democratization of information, which allowed more people than ever to be easily educated and connected across the globe. With access to education and communication being at an all time high, we’ve engaged in a sort of unspoken arms race to be the first to have the next great leap in automation. Companies, regulators, and individuals have had to reckon with The Future more presciently than ever.
And the unknown is a scary concept. It’s easy to fall into the “doom & gloom” Skynet-style robot takeover narrative that’s more popular than ever.
Within the next fifty years, AI could potentially outperform humans in all tasks, but even if the computers do “take over”, we’re going to keep working. The AI Revolution - much like Industrial Revolution before it - simply transformed the needs of labor. According to Pew Research, experts are evenly split on whether or not more jobs will be created in the wake of automation, but the general trend leans towards new roles and responsibilities emerging as business needs change. With my co-author, fellow veteran industry executive Steven O’Brien, we plan to explore and explain where we are, where we’re going and how we can keep moving forward.
Drivers of The Change
The AI Revolution or Automation Revolution started in the last century with the mass commercialization of the Internet. From the dotcom boom to the complete commercialization and monetization of 1’s and 0’s, the US labor force has shifted from task oriented work to information powered jobs. This change is making a staid career path less typical and 87% of workers believe they will need to be reskilled to keep working through the next few decades. It’s no longer the norm for someone to stay at a job for 20-30+ years, rising through the ranks (or possibly stagnating at a professional peak) and then retiring to a life of leisure. People can reskill themselves in the middle of their careers, beginning a whole new path or leaving the corporate workforce altogether.
The gig economy is a great visible example of the trend towards a multi-hyphenate career path for the average person. While Uber, DoorDash, and TaskRabbit dominate the gig economy discussion, it’s more than a marketplace for one-to-one services. Temporary work, contract work, and freelancing are all aspects of the gig economy and impact the job market in their own way. As the gig economy becomes a more popular option with employers and employees, and more options hit the market, participating employers and service providers are forced to redefine what it means to be an employee vs a contractor or temp worker.
Internet access has empowered millions of people worldwide and in turn has made our labor market more globally competitive. Higher education is no longer the advantage it once was for local employees as companies who have the resources can afford to bring on an educated employee from anywhere. Furthermore the gig economy has made it infinitely easier for companies to employee niche freelancers for special projects or needs without going through the relative hassle of hiring (and providing benefits for) a full time counterpart. The globalization of our workforce has certainly helped to drive innovation but it also requires a shift on a global scale to be sure that entire economies are not stagnated or left behind in the process.
Prepping for The Future
Globally, automation has the potential to displace up to 375 million workers across every industry by 2030, according to McKinsey Partners. While that is a startling number, companies can avoid this massive recession and social upheaval resulting from such a huge displacement by retraining mid-career employees to transition smoothly into these new workplaces. As the ones who are responsible for the insane momentum of automation, corporations should offer programs to reskill workers they would otherwise shed as they embrace automation.
In today’s tight labor market, more companies are embracing retraining for its existing employees. Almost three-quarters of companies offer some form of job development to at least some of their employees to cope with our ever-more digitized work environment. However, that number needs to be greater as every position has the ability to be retooled in the coming world of automatization. Ninety-three percent of employees highly value on the job training and cite it as a factor when deciding to stay in a job. Job development is an easy way to save employers the cost of hiring a replacement, and more importantly ensure that employees feel valued and happy.
Beyond re-educating an established workforce, our education system must improve to reflect the changing times. The US public school curriculum has barely changed in over 30 years; there’s still an overwhelming focus on standardized testing and preparing students for jobs that are becoming increasingly obsolete. The focus moving forward should be on encouraging students’ emotional intelligence and critical thinking, as these are skills that AI has yet to master.
When today’s students enter the workforce in ten years, they’ll spend less time doing calculations and more time making decisions, communicating complex topics, and working in a more diverse environment than ever before. The future of work resides in skills that machines aren’t good at, specifically those that require high social and emotional intelligence, encourage and exploit collaboration and creativity, and require the application of high levels of cognitive function. These are the skills that prepare people to work successfully alongside AI, not hours of Calculus II.
The ways we compensate and remunerate our workers will also not be immune to the AI Revolution. We briefly touched on the gig economy and the ways it has changed the way freelancers and independent service providers get their audience and business. Companies are increasingly relying on a freelancer or gig economy worker to avoid the welfare responsibilities that come with hiring full-time and even part time employees.
As these marketplaces continue to expand and freelancing/gig work becomes more commonplace, those who provide the services that power them will seek greater protections and benefits. In the next few years we may see a wave of new public outrage arguing for more comprehensive pay, benefits, or even a change in the designation of these types of workers. California has already decided to designate Uber drivers as eligible for minimum wage and benefits in January 2020.
Despite the rapid change we’ve experienced in the last 20 years, there are still huge hurdles that will keep automation from making humans obsolete. Currently, these technologies are well suited for predictable work in a predictable environment. Sure, there are some self driving cars and book writing robots out there but generally even these still require a human touch. As such, positions like teachers, care professionals, creatives, executives - any job that requires flexibility, creativity and on the spot decision making of the human mind will probably continue to work the way they do now. Automation may make people better at these jobs (for instance, doctors using AI-powered tools to better diagnose patients), but the social and emotional work that goes into “out of the box” thinking will keep broad swaths of industries open for non-robot workers.
The changes we’re experiencing thanks to automation aren’t novel. We’ve adapted to the way work has transformed many times before. The pace of our current innovating seems faster than ever, but that’s simply because we are more informed and connected now. As humans, we exist in a delicate balance of give and take; giving labor to earn money and in return we take goods and services to allow the “economy of life” and its precise balance to continue to grow at a sustainable rate.
The focus should no longer be on if we can change things, but how we can change them to be more equitable for everyone.
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