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Work and the future

  • Even jobs like that of lawyers, medicos and journalists will be done by computers
- NARAYAN MANANDHAR

May 11, 2018-

The forthcoming World Development Report 2019, a brand publication of the World Bank, is focusing on The Changing Nature of Work. The publication will reiterate the fact that there is a global concern over the changing nature of work in the 21st century. The World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland is already occupied with analysing the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on the world of work. Similarly, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) through its Global Commission on Future of Work is also focusing on the same issue.

The significant changes taking place in the nature of work can be deduced from the remarks made by Jack Ma, the founder of multinational technology conglomerate Alibaba, “My parents kept busy working 16 hours a day, I keep busy working eight hours a day and expect my children to work less.” It is projected that people in the future will work for not more than three hours a day, five days a week and still enjoy a comfortable life. The onset of globalisation, climate change, digitalisation and shifts in demography has profoundly changed our world of work. However, we are entering a more and more uncertain, complex, volatile and insecure world. Rapid changes in technology are making our skills obsolete and redundant. The arrival of artificial intelligence, bio-technology, the Internet of Things, crypto currencies and block chains, 3D printers and nanotechnology and the intensive use of robots are having a profound impact on our lives.

The on-going global debate on the world of work can be analysed from two different but interrelated perspectives, namely, one, the work of the future, and two, the future of the work. The first perspective speaks about the newer forms of tasks and the required knowledge and skills to perform them while the second perspective sheds light on the required policy changes to adapt to the changed circumstances. We are heading towards a cashless society, driverless cars, classrooms without teachers and paperless offices. It is projected that not only will manual and routine jobs be taken over by machines, even non-routine jobs like that of lawyers, medicos and sports journalists will be performed by computers.

Change with the times

The first industrial revolution replaced muscle power by machine power; the fourth industrial revolution will replace machine power by brain power. In the first industrial revolution, the use of steam engines (railways) squeezed the use of space by bringing together the source of raw materials, production units and markets. In the second industrial revolution, the use of electricity squeezed time by making it possible to run a factory 24 hours a day. The arrival of the internet and mobile phones has compressed both space and time making it possible to communicate in real time and gather real time data. The arrival of the Internet of Things is connecting the cyber world and the real world.

When it comes to work, humans are basically slow and clumsy but smart and innovative. On the other hand, machines are fast and efficient but stupid. What we are seeing is an increased combination of man and machines, that is the arrival of cyborgs. As we increasingly enter a gig economy and platform economy, the world of wok is going to change profoundly. It is said that platform companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon focuses, respectively, on the needs of our heads, hearts and bellies. In a gig economy, there are no such things as office space; you work from home. There is no concept like office time; you work at your convenience. The line between work and leisure will be blurred, making it difficult to distinguish between work and leisure. The World Economic Forum predicts that jobs with two skills will be in high demand. These are jobs with high math skills (analytical) and socio-emotional skills like leadership, team building, coordination and management.

Demographic shift

Paradoxically, the work of the future is impacting the future of work. As the concept of work changes drastically from a source of income to providing meaning and direction to our lives, there will be a search for newer forms of workplace incentives and motivation. The traditional hierarchical organisational structures will be replaced by fluid and agile teamwork. The growing use of email and the internet for business transactions implies an impersonalised world. And this calls for trust building and a corruption-free society.

Changes in demography alone are impacting the world of work. A dramatic reduction in fertility rates, increase in life expectancy and changing migration patterns all are having an impact on the quality and quantity of the workforce. Due to an ageing population, Japan was forced to increase the retirement age to 75 years. The arrival of the internet and impersonalised communication has made it possible for conservative Saudi women to join the workforce. All over the world, more and more women will join the workforce, unpaid caring jobs like cleaning and child care will be as important as paid jobs. How to balance work and life will be of increasing concern. This is even more accentuated by the arrival of flexible working hours, working space and payment systems. With online working spaces, it is possible for anybody to work anytime, anywhere in the world.

Rapid changes in technology have made learning a lifelong activity. Stability and linearity will be things of the past; people have to be prepared to learn new knowledge and skills almost throughout their lives. In the past, age and knowledge used to be positively correlated, meaning the more you mature, the more you are expected to know. This no more holds true. Yasha Asley, a boy aged 14 years, was hired by the University of Leicester, UK to run tutorials in math. He is also enrolled as a degree student. How is this possible? The answer lies in the power of the internet. Internet-addict Yasha became a self-educated professor at a tender age. 

As there will be high demand for non-routine and non-repetitive but highly skilled jobs, there will be extreme pay disparities. This will further accentuate the income and wealth inequality in society. Even though executives and highly skilled workers will be paid handsomely, the share of labour cost will be insignificant in the total cost. As economies gear up from manufacturing to service industries, this will further impact inequalities between the rich and the poor, and between the haves and the have-nots.

It is not poverty, rather gross inequality that will be the major challenge of the 21st century.

Manandhar is a freelance consultant

Published: 11-05-2018 07:57

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