Ever since the invention of the wheel, technology has been changing the way that we work. And we can probably safely assume that with each new technological development, there have been people who have forecast that this technology will see the end of the world as we know it, particularly the world of work, so that there will be nobody left employed. But each time, it doesn’t seem to have worked out like that. So when we hear people protesting that the Internet of Things (IoT) will change the world, and life will never be the same again, it’s tempting to dismiss it as more of the same. But economist Andrew McAfee, in a TED talk on what future jobs will look like, thinks that this time, the world may really change.
A brave new world
Jobs that have always been done by people, like driving, listening to people and responding, are starting to be done by machines. This is a huge change from the past. It may lead to a huge change in the world of work. If cars and trucks can drive themselves, we won’t need drivers. If Siri can answer the phone and respond to all our questions, why will we need call centre employees?
Looking at statistics on changing employment and social conditions since the 1960s, when computers started to be used to automate what used to be low-level clerking work, Andrew McAfee charts a widening social disparity between the top and the bottom of the middle class. Although the professional class, those providing the thinking that has driven the changes, has seen very little change in their overall employment status, marital status, and social standing over the last 50 years, the bottom of the middle class has seen huge changes. This class, the high level ‘blue collar’ and low level ‘white collar’ workers, are now less likely to be in full time work, more likely to be in prison, less likely to have long-lasting marriages, with children less likely to be brought up in two-parent families. It’s a harsh picture of a section of society that’s breaking down.
The UK has seen similar changes over the last 40–50 years, particularly in ‘working class’ groups. As manufacturing and traditional heavy industry has declined, large areas of the country have fallen prey to high unemployment. These areas were often highly populated: areas like the former coalfields of Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and the industrial North East. There are now families where no living male adult has ever worked.
But why does it matter?
Work, Voltaire pointed out, saves us from boredom, vice and need. In other words, it has a social function. We are now seeing the breakdown of this social function. And as the IoT automates more devices, there will be fewer jobs, which could have huge social implications. But these changes have implications for companies too. As Henry Ford’s union leader is supposed to have said, ‘How are you going to persuade robots to buy your cars?’. Without money, people can’t afford to buy anything except essentials. Growing economies depend on people having money to spend on luxuries.
Are there easy solutions? No. One aspect that might help is a minimum income guarantee, although this is anathema to many policy-makers around the world. However, it doesn’t address one of the key issues, which is that work is about much more than just an income: it’s also about having something to do, and making a contribution to society. Education must also be part of the solution to this issue of the changing world, partly because a good education is key to social mobility, and partly because we need to stop educating people to be fit only for jobs that no longer exist. Employers have a role to play in multi-skilling staff, not only to improve the way the company works, but also for those people for the future.
Despite the dystopian vision of the future that he has drawn, Andrew McAfee is not downhearted about the future. He sees a bigger picture. Over thousands of years, people have reacted to problems that are presented to them by developing solutions. He believes that they will do so again, when presented clearly with this change to the world of work. Whether the solution will be technological or human in concept will be interesting to see.
Image credit: Thomas Lottermoser