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Work has been central to humanity for millennia, and will continue to be. No matter how technological our age becomes, ultimately we, as humans, want the human touch. We live in interesting times. Concerns about a jobless future have never been greater. Almost every day, an academic, researcher or technology leader suggests that in a world of automation and artificial intelligence (AI), workers will increasingly be in surplus. The concerns of AI taking over jobs are understandable, as advances in the technology are now seen at work everywhere. From reading X-rays and MRIs to stock trading to conversational chatbots such as Alexa or Siri, AI is already present in almost every profession and industry.
When machines do everything, many wonder what will be left for us to do. How will we make a living when machines get cheaper, faster and smarter? Machines have a natural advantage to be hired over people, as they don’t take breaks or vacations, don’t call in sick or spend time chatting up with colleagues. There are now various predictions of gloom doing the rounds about the future of work for humans. On top of the list are an inevitable shift to a ‘gig economy’ full of temporary jobs, a move towards minimum wage labour and the rise of a ruling technocracy that calls the shots from isolation and secrecy.
Not all Hollywood plotlines may turn true. Amid all these pessimistic predictions of job losses, we can also see an entirely positive vision of the future if we carefully read the top trends and facts. These major macroeconomic, political, demographic, societal, cultural, business and technology trends of today offer us a compelling picture of the future of work.
Built on a solid foundation of interpreting how change occurs and how humans evolve, here are six principles that would form the base of tomorrow’s jobs landscape:
1. Work has always changed and will continue to change Few, if any, people make a living nowadays as knocker-uppers, telegraphists, switchboard operators, computers (the first computers were people), lamplighters, nursemaids, limners, town criers, travel agents, bank tellers, elevator operators or secretaries. Yet, these were all jobs that employed thousands of people in the past.
2. Lots of current work is awful and people have to be liberated from them
Millions of people around the world do work they hate — work that is dull, dirty or dangerous. Rather than trying to keep people in these jobs, we should liberate them to do more fulfilling, more enjoyable, more lucrative work. We shouldn’t have a “pre-nostalgia” for the mortgage processor in the way that some people are nostalgic about miners and steelworkers (people who typically weren’t miners or steelworkers, it goes without saying).
3. Machines need humans; there will always be new jobs to do
Machines can do more, but there is always more to do — that almost always needs humans! Can a machine (in its software or hardware form) create itself, market itself, and sell itself? Deliver itself? Feed itself? Clean itself? Fix itself? Machines are tools, and tools need to be used. By people. To imagine otherwise is to fall into the realm of science-fiction extrapolation.
4. Never underestimate human imagination or ingenuity
Our greatest quality is our curiosity. We want to know: What’s around the river-bend? How does it work? What does it mean? How can we make it better? In an age of intelligent machines, humans will continue to want to explore — and make — what’s next. Doing so will be the source of new work ad infinitum.
5. Technology will upgrade all aspects of the society
Many aspects of modern societies are still far from perfect. Is our healthcare system as good as it’s ever going to be? The way we bank? How we educate our kids? Insure our houses? Board an airplane? Of course not. Technology — which is still, in truth, peripheral to many aspects of our work and our lives — is set to become central to how we do everything and, in the process, make the services and experiences we want much, much better. And, in doing so, it will also impact how we occupy our time.
6. Technology solves and creates new problems. ‘Wash - Rinse - Repeat’
Technology solves and creates new problems. The little secret of the technology world is that every solution begets a problem. Intelligent machines will address many problems in society, but in doing so, will also create new problems that should be addressed by people, work that they will monetise. The work ahead, therefore, goes on forever. Wash, rinse, repeat.
In the future, work will change, but won’t go away. Many types of jobs will disappear. Many workers will struggle to adjust to the disappearance of the work they understand and find it hard to thrive with work they don’t understand. Wrenching transformations, which is what the future of work holds for us all, are never easy, but have to be taken astride for our collective progress.
- By Manish Bahl, Senior Director, Centre for the Future of Work, Cognizant