Startup Opinion, Technology

The future of work: Why every prediction you read is wrong

Jon Williams /

future of work

Fifth Frame co-founder Jon Williams. Source: Supplied.

Every prediction you have read about the future of work will be wrong.

And the impact on workers in five or 10 years’ time is not an issue for the future, has the potential to be either positive or destructive and will be a consequence of actions taken today.

While the debate about the future of work continues to get plenty of media coverage, much of it is of the alarmist ‘the robots are coming to take your job’ version. It makes for good press and interesting, populist stories.

However, the predictions for the near-term impact of automation on white-collar roles have dropped from 40% to as low as 10%. Who knows where they will be in another 12 months? While machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotic process automation will make a difference to which jobs survive and how work is done. There are two other factors — lengthening human lifespans and changes in society — that will have bigger impacts.

If we look at the past, we will understand none of this is new. It is part of a continuum that has often predicted an apocalyptic future but rarely delivered one.  

For the past 50 years, lifespans in the west have increased by three years every decade. Notwithstanding the occasional bumps (average lifespans decreased by a month early last year in the UK, the first time since 1982) this is likely to continue, if not accelerate, as we find ‘cures’ for cellular ageing as well as for diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Average lifespan in Australia is currently 82. On this reckoning, in 60 years it will be 100 (good news if you are 40 or younger).

In the same 50-year timeframe we have moved, in Australia as in much of the world, from a position where twice as many men worked as women, to one where that gap is more like 15%.  

In other words, we have moved from a world where work was largely done by men, in special places built for work and at prescribed times of day, to one where work is open to almost anyone, often done anywhere, and where people are ‘on’ all the time.  

While the journey to full equality is not done yet — there are still fewer women in the workforce, fewer women in senior roles, significantly more women in part-time roles, and pay inequality is still a work in progress — we are well down this track.

But, as these remaining issues are resolved society will also continue to change its views on other issues such acceptable working hours, employment versus contracting, careers as against jobs, the role of older workers (of whom there will be many more), the responsibilities of employers and corporations and so on. This will happen irrespective of technology changes — but technology will play an important role in enabling and allowing these changes.

To illustrate how this works let us consider one, relatively minor technology: satellite navigation.

First, some history. GPS, the America satellite system, was introduced in 1978 for military use and became globally available in 1994. During the late-90s and early-2000s, there was a gradual uptake of stand-alone navigation systems, but it was slow because of hardware costs and map reliability issues (remember all those stories of people ending up in farmer’s fields?) In 2008, Google Maps started to get its act together as the single global mapping source of truth, smartphones made access to the technology easy and free, and good old Gregory’s and UBD guides started to disappear.

At this macro level, the satnav story could be seen as a tale of woe. While many marriages were probably saved by reduced in-car squabbling, the overall upshot was that a decades-old local publishing sub-industry was all but destroyed by technology and power was further cemented in the hands of a few (the US government who own the satellites, the mapping data owners, Google, and hardware manufacturers Apple and Samsung).

Told another way, though, the satnav has been a tale all about opportunity.

One of the current trends in the future of work debate is to analyse the impact of new technology on particular jobs, counting the likely damage that automation will cause. On this basis, the first implications of satnav would have been that a small proportion of a taxi driver’s role would be replaced: the requirement to know how to get from A to B.  But not enough of the role changed to actually replace the taxi driver, despite this ‘robotic augmentation’ you still needed one taxi driver per taxi. On that maths, one would have thought taxi driver jobs would be safe from the impact of automation until self-driving vehicles became a reality. 

However, the satnav also enabled a whole new business model: Uber and other ride-sharing apps. Anyone who has used Uber knows most drivers would be lost, literally, without their GPS-enabled app. And, of course, Uber was at the forefront of a new economy of gig workers — with multiple jobs, no career paths, the opportunity to be entrepreneurial, no age restrictions and so on. In the meantime, while taxis were threatened, they also upped their game in both service, technology and customer service, and the population is on the whole happier.

The same story of apparent destruction but actual creation could be told for many technologies. Wifi, an Australian invention, for example, enabled café working culture (good) and spawned activity-based working (although perhaps that’s mostly bad, which is another story for another time). Blockchain probably won’t lead to a cryptocurrency revolution and the end of banks but it might very well spin off any number of new opportunities where we need secure transparent transaction records.

The moral of this tale is we really don’t know where new technology is going to take us and just ‘counting’ the impact on the existing scenario and assuming the worst is only a small part of the picture, while the bigger cause and effect on society is harder to predict.

So, if we don’t know precisely what the future is going to look like, which jobs will survive and which new ones will be invented, what should we do in the meantime as we wait for this world to unfold? How do we take control of the future by acting now? 

In my mind, individuals and organisations that employ people have three responsibilities to help us collectively prepare for the future.

The first is to look after ourselves or our people by fostering the vitality and wellness we will all need, not least to survive a 50-year career, let alone cope with the broader pace of change. Living to 100 means our working life is a marathon, not a sprint. Or perhaps a series of different races one after the other.

Second, we need to do whatever we can to provide access to and support for a lifetime of learning – no-one can afford to set and forget their working life any more. The learning that we do and the way we think of ourselves needs to become less focussed on ‘jobs’ and more on skills. Each individual should stop thinking of themselves as a job-holder (with the inherent risk of that ‘job’ disappearing) and more as the holder of a bundle of skills which can be added to and reconfigured as the world changes.

Finally, we need to build organisations and relationships between people and their employer that provide value and meaning to our lives — and let the robots do the stuff that humans should probably never have had to do in the first place.

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Jon Williams

Jon is a co-founder of business consulting firm Fifth Frame. He has spent the past 30 years consulting with organisations across the world on the connection between human and organisational prosperity.

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