Uschi Shreiber uses a human-centred design approach to test with real people, their level of awareness about whether their job could be replaced by technology
Yesterday, on my way to Davos, I tried a little experiment about the future of work.
With each worker I met, my question was: could his or her job be replaced by technology? The results of this exercise paint a compelling but concerning picture of the future. It started with the woman at the reception desk as I checked out of my hotel. Many hotels are already trialing electronic guest check-outs and receipts. So her role is already being replaced.
Next came the man who drove me to the airport. His job will definitely be replaced shortly as driverless cars will become more common in the next few years.
Check-in and baggage-drop at the airport are already done in collaboration between myself and a machine – no people required.
Even going through immigration has become automated. I walked through electronic gates that scanned my passport where not too long ago a line of immigration officers was waiting to stamp it.
My jet still had pilots, but they are doing far less work, with most of the flying these days done by computer. There are already military drones piloted remotely and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this could one day apply to passenger services.
And on and on it went through the day.
Yesterday the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its The Future of Jobs report – a survey based on 15 economies comprising 1.9 billion workers, or 65% of the world’s workforce. It predicts that sweeping changes to the global workforce will lead to more than 5.1 million jobs being lost by 2020 – with 7.1 million positions lost among routine white-collar office functions and 2 million new jobs created in computer science, mathematics, architecture, engineering and related fields.
The report forecasts significant competition for talent in these in-demand job categories, making it more vital than ever to develop a “solid talent pipeline”. At the same time, workers in lower-skilled roles could face redundancy unless they are retrained – something that employers facing disruptive changes to their business models may very well resist for economic reasons. And let’s be honest, not everybody might be able or want to retrain. And retrain to what?
In his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, WEF Executive Director Klaus Schwab cites Oxford Martin School research showing that some professions are more vulnerable than others to automation. Among those most prone are legal secretaries, real estate brokers, restaurant hosts and hostesses, tax preparers and telemarketers. The least prone to automation are social workers, sales managers, doctors, human resources managers, computer systems analysts and chief executives.
All in all, the research concludes that about 47% of total employment in the U.S. is at risk over the next decade or two. Employment will grow in both high-income cognitive fields and low-income manual work. But automation and disintermediation will greatly diminish the need for middle-income jobs based on routine and repetition. Already the number of functions that can be automated is astounding. This job destruction is happening across a much broader range of occupations and at a much faster pace than experienced in any past industrial revolution.
The big question is what the new model for labor will look like. Technology optimists are painting a picture of people being creative and moving into entrepreneurship everywhere. But will everyone really thrive as an entrepreneur? Is this a reasonable option for millions of people who expect to have a role in society, even if their jobs are low-wage?
This disruption to the labor market does not hit us at a time of strength, since we have seen an erosion of the middle class across mature economies since the global financial crisis. A recent survey by personal finance website Bankrate.com found that approximately 62% of Americans have no emergency savings and are effectively one pay check away from the street. What would large scale job losses do to them?
Alarmingly, as The Future of Jobs highlights, a large share of the labor market disruption is likely to be concentrated in occupations with the largest percentage of female employees, such as office and administrative roles. Meanwhile, the professions that are expected to grow jobs already have the highest gender imbalance, such as architecture, engineering, mathematics and computer science.
As I wrote recently, it’s bad news that women are making such slow progress towards parity in technology. Exacerbating this situation is the fact that nearly half of all industries in advanced economies are increasing their demand for technological skills. Unless something changes fast, women will also start to lose ground in these other industries. The jobs report puts some numbers around these issues.
By 2020, men will lose nearly 4 million jobs while gaining 1.4 million – approximately one new job created for every three gone. But women will face 3 million jobs lost and gain just 550,000 – more than five positions lost for every one created. In the STEM professions slated for significant growth, men will gain more than 600,000 jobs by 2020 while the share for women will be little more than 100,000. Put another way, men will get one new STEM job per four jobs lost compared to women losing 20 jobs for just one STEM position.
The jobs report data stimulates many questions. Let me suggest just a few:
- What is the impact on the economy when consuming classes no longer have the income to consume?
- What do we need to do to manage a transition to less work so that the available work is shared more widely?
- What can we do to share the gains achieved by technology so that the benefit is there for many and not just a few?
- How will we educate people for the future and not just for the past?
These are all big questions. Inherent in this is the need for us to think not just in terms of economic growth but to think about society as a whole. A society is more than just an economy and encompasses economic, social, industrial and cultural infrastructure aspects of collective human life. Maybe now is the time to think about what kind of society we want to be in future – one that uses technology to enhance our lives, including in the context of work and production? Or one that seeks short term productivity gains that benefit a small group of people?