In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological change and productivity improvements would eventually lead to a 15-hour work week.
However, despite significant productivity gains over the past few decades, it now feels like we are working 15-hour days.
We are experiencing another industrial revolution – and this time, it’s digital. What we don’t know is how these rapid technological changes will affect our jobs and whether artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will replace humans in the workplace.
Speaking at a Huawei panel discussion on the future of work, Professor Brian Armstrong, who heads Wits’ Digital Business department, said the world does not know just how much technology will change it, but it does know that our work will change. Armstrong argues that humans are adaptive creatures and so we respond to each new industrial or technological development by learning about it and using it.
However, technology is changing faster than our ability to respond to it.
“There is an absolute need in humans to do meaningful work, therefore we need to influence the path and speed of these technological changes so that we can prepare for this new world,” Armstrong said.
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The digital revolution
Industries that benefited the most from new technology had a 46% increase in productivity from 1993 to 2004 – the height of the tech boom. Innovation in farming technology was the root of this “productivity boom”.
In other words, technology is increasing productivity so fast that it is outpacing the benefits of having actual work experience, yet these significant productivity gains are not translating into fewer working hours. Instead of reducing working hours, productivity gains have been met by calls for greater productivity gains.
At an economic level, productivity gains have been absorbed into most companies’ bottom lines. While employee wage growth has stayed flat, CEO pay has risen dramatically over the years, stalling only recently. A report from the Economic Policy Institute found that salaries for CEOs have increased by 937% since 1978, compared with a mere 10.2% increase in average wages, so the benefits of productivity have gone straight to the top.
The development of automation enabled by technologies including robotics and AI brings the promise of higher productivity (leading to economic growth), increased efficiencies, safety and convenience.
But these technologies also raise difficult questions about the broader impact of automation on jobs, skills, wages and the nature of work itself.
Many activities that workers carry out today have the potential to be automated. At the same time, job-matching sites such as LinkedIn and Monster are changing and expanding the way individuals look for work, as well as the way companies identify and recruit talent. Independent workers are increasingly choosing to offer their services on digital platforms, thereby challenging conventional ideas about how and where work is undertaken.
* Based on research from the McKinsey Global Institute
But all is not lost. Armstrong has a few tips for people in the job market to deal with this unknown future. He says there are no certainties or sure-fire answers, but these are some things to keep in mind:
- Beware of predictions. Technological and social change happens unevenly, in fits and starts. Many of the predictions we read about will materialise; 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 right now. 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 old-fashioned teaching was about the transfer of specific knowledge. What is more important now is helping people to help themselves to learn.
- Skills are important, core capabilities are even more so. For decades, the attributes that are critical to being effective, appreciated and successful at work have been “old-fashioned” virtues like 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.
- But skills also matter. 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.
- 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.
- 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 paying, 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.
- Be aware of 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 unstructured dexterity. Careers that emphasise these will be less vulnerable to automation and may well see a growth in demand in the future.
- Be human. Whatever job we do, we and the people we work with are all imperfect emotional beings. 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.
- Become part of the conversation. Digitisation is exposing new frontiers in ethics, regulation, law-making, social policies, economics and even politics. It also makes active citizenship viable. Be informed; be aware; don’t be a passenger; don’t be a victim; make your voice heard. The march of technology is not deterministic. We can shape it to make sure it helps us achieve a better society, not a more fractured one.
It is a real thing
The gig economy is taking over the world, and most people have yet to fully realise its impact.
Put simply, the gig economy is a labour market characterised by freelance, flexible, on-demand work rather than the more traditional nine-to-five working model.
Instead of being paid a regular salary, workers are
paid for each “gig” they do, such as food delivery or a cleaning job.
Typically, workers in the gig economy find jobs by registering on websites or apps and signing up for what they want to do.
About 15.6% of the UK’s workforce makes up the gig economy. The figure is 34% in the US and expected to rise to 43% by 2020. South Africa will, no doubt, follow suit.
There are a number of forces behind the rise in short-term jobs. For one thing, in this digital age, the workforce is increasingly mobile and work can increasingly be done from anywhere, which means that the job is decoupled from the location, so freelance workers can select a temporary job or project that is offered anywhere in the world without needing to move to that city. At the same time, employers can select the best individuals for projects from a larger pool than that available in one specific area.
Digitisation has also contributed directly to a decrease in jobs as software replaces some types of work and means that activities can take much less time to complete.
South Africa is still recovering from recession and, with an unemployment rate of 27.7%, there’s no doubt that a lot of these “gigs” are performed because there is nothing better out there for the jobseeker.
While some may argue that the gig economy empowers entrepreneurs, others say that it is purely another way to exploit workers.
In most countries, only full-time employees are entitled to the protection of employment legislation, such as being protected from unfair dismissal, and receiving minimum basic benefits such as holiday pay, sick leave and minimum working hours.
Independent contractors are not offered such protection and their recourse is limited to what is contained in their service contracts. – BusinessTech