IT and the Future of Work

IT and the future of work

Adrian Home Page, Industry Focus, Innovations, IT, Opinion and Analysis, US Economy

Introduction

We are seeing changes in the nature of work for many people. In the ‘West’, we now appear to have accepted that the job for life is a thing of the past. For some time, commentators have talked of the shift from job for life, to career, to portfolio career (sequence of jobs “designed” by you), to the current situation – Jerry Davis1 of The Brookings Institution asserts that we now have the “rise of the gig economy”.

The fall of the Career

The “gig economy” is exemplified by Uber, which (as of September 2015) had 327,000 drivers who are not employees of the company. Uber’s salaried workforce is around 2,000 staff. We don’t have “jobs” we have indivdiual “gigs” for which we are paid.

Davis points out that there are Uber equivalents “for almost any personal service you can imagine”. He goes on to cite package pickup and mailing, and house cleaning, as examples, saying that it will be extended to “the provision of medical care, to college lectures”. In effect, what are now “jobs” will become “tasks” paid for “on a piece rate”.

There are others who agree with Jerry, including:

Gartner research director Peter Sondergaard 2, states that “Gartner predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots, and smart machines by 2025.” He also adds that “New digital businesses require less labor; machines will make sense of data faster than humans can.”
From the Oxford Martin Program on the Impacts of Future Technology we read that, “Nearly half of U.S. jobs could be susceptible to computerization over the next two decades.” 3
In addition, a study by McKinsey & Co. concludes that, “Our research suggests that as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.” 4
The authors add, “Although we often think of automation primarily affecting low-skill, low-wage roles, we discovered that even the highest-paid occupations in the economy, such as financial managers, physicians, and senior executives, including CEOs, have a significant amount of activity that can be automated.” 4

This paints a very bleak picture of the future, in which jobs are decimated by automation and increasing levels of unemployment wreak havoc on the economy and on people’s lives.

Cause for Optimism

Fortunately, this is not the only view of the future, and the alternative set of views do not paint such a bleak picture. These viewpoints are also more plausible as an outcome, provided that there is some stewardship of our economies which don’t actively discourage this outcome.

The Role of Technology in Job Creation

The proponents of the bleak future, omit the reality that technology has long played a role in job creation as well as job destruction.

Robert Cohen, a senior fellow at the Strategy Institute, argues that automation replaced many manufacturing jobs, but services jobs, in turn, replaced those that were lost. 5

A specific case is made for the increasing demand for data analysts that will interpret all of the Big Data from the Internet of Things sensors. Cohen estiamtes that 25 million jobs will be created, whilst 15 million jobs will be lost to automation.

Another example given is that driverless cars will reduce the need for emergency response jobs, but the huge driverless car infrastructure that will be needed will create enormous demand for construction workes, technical workers, jobs in sensor system management, installation and sales.

Companies that are not currently considered technology firms are creating new products to take advantage of the potential of the Internet of Things and Big Data. These include; automotive companies, banks, insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

What does this mean for jobs?

Computer programmers, data analysts, and those who develop and install sensors will be in high demand in the coming 20 years or so. This means that those who can perform managerial, marketing, manufacturing, cybersecurity and support jobs for this industries and technologies will be in demand and able to secure work.

The available jobs will not just be for those with the best college education. Technical skills, physical labour, training and related vocational roles will be needed to integrate these new technologies and capabilities into people’s lives.

In Conclusion

From the information currently available, we can make some clear inferences about the future of work, and the impact of Information Technologies on the opportunities and challenges:

  1. Technology will not make human workers obsolete; people and technology will work together to increase productivity to new levels, resulting in a reshaping of jobs, creation of new job and new business models. Those most at risk will be those performing the routine, repetitive (“mundane”?) tasks that technologies are best suited to replace.
  2. Some jobs will remain untouched for a long time to come; if your work is centred in creativity, or understanding the nuances of human emotion (or relies on these skills as a key part of the job) then these aspects are more immune to the march of technological change.
  3. Heathcare jobs will continue to develop; I have previously written about the increasing personalisation of medicine, and this trend will continue. In addition, we are seeing the increased automation of lab work, with machines processing standard tests (such as the 100,000 blood tests per day performed by machines at Throcare Technologies in India), robots are performing surgical procedures more accurately than humans and Artificial Intelligence is now outperforming Doctors across many diseases and conditions by recognising patterns of symptoms.

As indicated, these changes will not lead to the dystopian future of the more bleak sci-fi movies and novels, but will lead to further rapid change across a broad range of industries and jobs. The key is to remain informed and prepared for the changes ahead.

References

  1. “Capital markets and job creation in the 21st century” by Jerry Davis. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2015/12/30-21st-century-job-creation-davis
  2. ComputerWorld, 6 October 2014. “One in Three Jobs WIll be Taken by Software or Robots by 2025,” by Patrick Thibodeau.
  3. “Technology at Work v2.0: The Future is Not What It Used To Be”, The Oxford Martin School: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/publications/view/2092
  4. “Four Fundamentals of Workplace Automation,” http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/business-technology/our-insights/four-fundamentals-of-workplace-automation
  5. Fortune, 15 January 2016, “25 Million New Jobs Coming to America, Thanks to Technology,” Rick Wartzman. http://fortune.com/2016/01/15/new-jobs-technology/