I spend a lot of my time talking about the future to groups large and small. One of the common reactions is that “we’ve seen this before – technology just changes jobs – it doesn’t do away with them”.
No-one seems to think it will affect their job or even their children’s jobs. It is all something in the future. But I would argue we should each of us understand how we will be affected in the next few years, what we can do to protect ourselves and, perhaps most importantly, what will affect our children and what we should advise them.
There is a lot of truth in the response that technology just changes jobs. Technology took people off the land and into factories; it made our lives richer with levels of comfort and sophistication that our forebears could not have dreamed of.
It did this over time and it was a process that involved a lot of suffering as people moved from an agrarian to an industrial life. Think of the Jarrow March when, in 1936, a group of 200 men from the north-eastern town of Jarrow marched 300 miles to London. They wanted Parliament, and those in the south, to understand that they had 70 per cent unemployment.’ In hindsight it’s easy to underestimate the suffering that affected generations of people.
So, the argument goes, the coming technology revolution really is just the same? Current jobs will be replaced with new jobs, there will be some pain of course (generally not for the commentator) but in the long run the jobs will be there, it won’t be any different this time.
I was interested last year to discover that, in a survey I did for March of the robots… into the boardroom, only 3% thought leadership jobs would be lost because of automation. Everyone thinks that the jobs to go will be someone else’s. Even – or especially – senior managers.
Well, there are two responses to that. Firstly if you are one of the people whose job is likely to be replaced then you need to find an alternative. Those alternatives will either be low paid caring jobs or high paid technology or creative jobs. If you are a middle ranking lawyer or accountant then perhaps you should be thinking about retraining for the future. If you can’t do that then your future is probably quite bleak.
If you are running one of the businesses that are likely to be disrupted by technology then you should be thinking about how to change your business plan.
All of the research seems to be coalescing around the view that somewhere between 45% to 60% of processes will be automated, sometimes replacing humans completely (as with junior lawyers and accountants), sometimes helping humans improve their performance (as with doctors and surgeons). Some people will be able to focus more on the creative and emotional elements of their jobs but significant numbers of jobs will completely disappear and there is no evidence that they will be replaced.
A study cited in the FT recently showed that “Tech does not replace old jobs with new ones”, or at least not in sufficient numbers. Only 0.5 per cent of the US labour force is employed in industries that did not exist in 2000 and, even in Silicon Valley, only 1.8 per cent of workers are employed in new industries.
There are two other arguments that I hear. One is that “everyone will be able to work shorter hours”. This implies a major change in employment practices to share the work around. Are businesses willing to have more workers on the payroll who all work shorter hours? Evidence would say not. Are governments looking at how to change fiscal structures to help the process? And will all workers trade shorter hours for lower wages?
The other argument is that “people will be able to become more creative and spend more of their time in the creative industries”. I think the jury is out on that. How many people have that level of creativity and will people be willing to pay for it?
Change happens because there is a compelling reason for it to happen and a recent McKinsey article identifies the compelling reason: “When we modeled the potential of automation to transform business processes across several industries, we found that the benefits (ranging from increased output to higher quality and improved reliability, as well as the potential to perform some tasks at superhuman levels) typically are between three and ten times the cost.
So these changes will happen, they will cause pain, new jobs will be created but old ones will be lost. If you are in a job or running a business that will be disrupted then you need to take action now if you are going to thrive in the new world. Over the coming months I will look at what people can do to help themselves – and would welcome your views on what this should include.