You can’t watch the footage of the latest Atlas robot by Google’s Boston Dynamics without thinking about films like Terminator, Blade Runner, and Robocop. The reality of robotics in those films really isn’t that far away.
And for workers the plot is grim: technology and innovation are destroying jobs at an unprecedented rate. A previous post on this site regarding the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” reads like an economist’s take on those iconic films and raises serious questions about the future of work.
What will Atlas – or his future iterations – be able to do by the year 2020?
The facts are confronting: the Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicts 47% of American jobs could be automated by 2020. Boston Consulting Group claims a quarter of jobs will be replaced by smart software or robots by 2025. And the Committee for Economic Development of Australia submits five million Aussie jobs which exist today are likely to disappear before the same year.
What distinguishes this change from others in history is the pace at which jobs and professions are being swallowed up by progress. To borrow the most dramatic line from Back to the Future’s Doc Brown, these jobs are being “erased from existence”.
To this end spare a thought for the local accountant. A study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte predicts that 95% of accountant jobs are likely to be automated by 2020.
It isn’t just accountants either. In the heavy vehicle industry driverless trucks are all rage. The National Transport Commission is currently looking at the legal limitation to automation including driverless trucks. Overseas, the International Transport Forum at the OECD is planning to discuss these issues at its upcoming annual summit.
Will we have a day when instead of a driver in every vehicle we might have one for every two, three or four or even five trucks driving on the highway? Road transport by 2018 is forecasted to have a workforce of 8,900,000 people in the U.S. Imagine if those jobs were halved because of technology.
Is this going to be an employment Armageddon where the pace of change creates a flood of unemployed and therefore a new underclass, or will innovation, markets and public policy come to the rescue by creating new jobs at an equally accelerated rate?
Recent history suggests that the ratio of job losses to job creation will not be one-to-one.
Digital platforms are revolutionizing the nature of work. In many ways, this is a positive development, one that has the potential to match workers with jobs more efficiently and transparently than ever before. Freelancer.com, Airtasker and Upwork are examples of platforms that help companies find and hire contingent workers for a range of specialized tasks such as software or website development.
But it’s also a facilitation of a usually non full-time, certainly non-permanent work.
If one were to make a prediction it would be to offer that in the future, permanent professional work will largely go the way of the VHS … sadly it will become a thing of the past. And as such it creates all manner of policy and human problems.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia poses one nicely: “as more Americans earn their income from more than one employer, we need a 21st century social contract that meets their needs.”
What is that new social contract? Does it include universal income, portable benefits, global minimum standards for occupations?
Nobody can imagine accurately what the workplace of 22nd century will look like and what jobs they will be doing but, automation, the internet-of-things, 3D printing and machine learning will play a major role.
And unless we act, and define the future we desire, we could very much end up with a two-tier labor market – those that have and those that don’t.
North American public policy certainty suffers from our short electoral cycle. Long-term structural change doesn’t get the time to lay roots before another federal election results in a change of government and a change of approach.
Change of this scale to the very nature of work warrants the sort of patient cooperation our countries seem incapable of. And if the political elite can’t do it then we need the bureaucracy to step up. We need groups inside government departments unbound by the short-term constraints of electoral pressures to take on this long-term planning and strategy.
They must remind our political leaders that governments can shape the consequences of the technological revolution, ensuring that the challenges are managed and the opportunities seized. And employers need to engage directly with the education system to better address the knowledge gap they need in the medium to long-term so that future and current employees have the skills needed to gain access and remain in the workforce.
But equally they must look beyond the short-term interest of shareholder return and play the long game otherwise companies will face that Kodak moment on a far more regular basis.
To address these issues we need a strategy that brings together the public and private sectors, academia and civil society. And so back to our original theme lets remind ourselves of the advice of John Connor: “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves”
Let’s hope our political system is up to it.