Technology is often viewed as a threat to jobs. But done right, it can liberate our time—and lead to new opportunitiesby Jason Stockwood / September 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
For the past five years, it’s been hard to move for surveys and studies showing how many jobs are set to become obsolete as a result of automation.
Since the debate was blown open by Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, whose 2013 paper suggested 47 per cent of American jobs were threatened by automation, the doom-laden predictions have just kept coming.
One survey suggests around 6 million workers in the UK fear their job will be gone within a decade, and the British Science Association has warned it could represent a greater threat than climate change.
But are those fears justified, and are we really about to enter a dystopian, machine-dominated future? After all, a new report by McKinsey has suggested artificial intelligence could deliver around $13tn additional economic activity worldwide by 2030.
Getting behind the headlines
To answer that question, we need to get beyond the headline numbers and examine the underlying issues.
Firstly, is it such a bad thing that some jobs are going to become obsolete? Shouldn’t we be welcoming the fact that the ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ occupations, as some have termed them, are soon going to become the preserve of robots?
In my teens and twenties, I did jobs from labouring on the docks to being a call centre operative—exactly the kind of work that automation may soon be accounting for.
If you’d told me back then that these jobs were going to be taken out of human hands, I wouldn’t have been rushing to the barricades to fight for them.
Much as automation represents a risk to livelihoods, we shouldn’t let that create a false nostalgia about jobs that most people would rather not do if given the choice.
Haulage, one of the sectors often pinpointed as most vulnerable to automation in the near future, should be welcoming the prospect with open arms.
As it stands, the industry is struggling to find enough people to drive trucks, because people’s priorities have changed, and the lifestyle of a long-haul driver is an increasingly tough sell.
Offering better work
That said, the automation of jobs people don’t want is only a good thing if they are replaced by ones that people do.
And that brings us to the issue of what employers and employees can be doing to prepare for the labour market that technology will create.
As I argue in my new book Reboot, it is unequivocally a company’s responsibility to help its people get ready for a future in which their current job may not exist. There’s a moral obligation, but it’s also something that makes business sense.
If your company, and the skills it relies on, is going to change, why wouldn’t you want your people to change with it? That’s exactly the reality that large-scale employers, like the telecoms giant AT&T, are tumbling towards. It is investing $250m in a retraining programme for over 100,000 members of staff.
Same salaries, more time
In my company, our efforts are primarily focused on people working in our customer contact centre.
Customer service is an area of most businesses that automation will play an increasing role in very soon (even if our own experience is that many customers still value a human connection, and it’s unlikely to be a binary shift from people to machines).
So we are trying something different. We have instituted a series of experiments that are moving our contact centre team towards a four-day (32 hour) week.
The intention, through doing new things both with and without technology, is to improve efficiency to the point where the operation can run on fewer human hours, and to share the benefits of that change with employees as well as shareholders.
That means we want to keep salaries the same, even though people will be working fewer hours.
At the moment this is still an experiment: we need to prove our hypothesis that a shorter week can be both more efficient for our business, and provide a better work-life balance for our people.
But we are confident—and the indicators from equivalent trials around the world are encouraging.
Better skills training
The shorter week doesn’t just hold the prospect of making employees happier and businesses more efficient. There is also the opportunity to invest time saved in helping people acquire skills that can support the evolution of their career.
The point is that we are not powerless in the face of technological change to the labour market. People can re-skill, and their employers should help them.
Technology can help too, by creating space for people to work on those new skills.
For all the many studies and surveys, the truth is we don’t exactly know what impact automation will have on employment.
While researchers predict, the time has come for companies to prepare: to build the bridge between the jobs that exist today, and those that we expect to tomorrow. And we need to use technology, as a tool in service of human needs, to do that.