The future of work

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³. Learn more about C³ at the end of the post. 

Our work is not meant to serve as an all-inclusive summary on the topic, but instead is meant to serve as a starting point for thinking and learning about it. We outline important factors to consider as you form your own opinion rather than trying to push you in one direction or another

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Structuring the Topic

Jobs

  • How many jobs are going to be threatened by technology and which ones will it be? This is often a central component of the future of work discussion but should never be seen in isolation as it is the product of many moving parts.

Technological Advancement

  • The rate at which technology advances is a key component to the future of work. Different paces of technological advancement will have vastly different outcomes, none by definition good or bad. Rather, whether this advancement is beneficial for society or not depends on adjacent moving factors such as education, immigration and new political structures.

Education

  • Although easily a discussion on its own, education plays an important role in the future of work. Not discussing reform of our education system alongside discussing technological advancements, will lead to doomsday-like scenarios – a few holding everything and the rest becoming an irrelevant class. 
  • When considering education reform, consider basic schooling, universities, and mid-career retraining.

Universal Basic Income

  • What are the tools our politicians possess in the case that technology does put all the wealth into the hands of the elite few? Although we do not take a stance on UBI, it worth considering when it will be relied on, and how to think about the debate surrounding UBI.

Key issues and implications

No clear answer on the future of work

  • There are conflicting views about the nature of change and its imminence. There is no doubt that change in terms of productivity and types of jobs will occur but it’s about how and when this change takes shape. 
  • The future of work cannot be predicted, however it will be determined by a combination of different variables: technological change, education, talent mobility and government interference. These factors are relatively independent, and different outcomes for each variable can impact society greatly.

Automation is good

  • There seems to be a negative connotation surrounding automation. The media always focuses on job losses because fear sells.
  • It is important to remember that automation is good, as the jobs that are being automated are not meaningful. No one grows up with the dream of being a cashier.
  • The problem becomes finding or creating new jobs so that this individual can continue to be an active member of society.

Human capabilities

  • Humans have two types of abilities, physical and cognitive. The first wave of automation eliminated most physical labor and created more jobs in the cognitive space. The next wave of automation is likely to automate cognitive jobs which suggests that this time may be different. We do not know of a third field of activity, beyond physical and cognitive ability where humans will retain a secure edge.
  • Some argue that machines can never surpass humans in understanding human behavior, subtle cues and emotions – however, if it turns out that these are no more than biological algorithms, it is only a matter of time before computers decipher these algorithms far better than we can.

Not a battle

  • It is vital not to see it as a battle of human versus AI, but rather that there is huge potential for collaboration. It is possible that the job market of 2050 is more likely to be characterized by AI-human cooperation than competition.
  • Kai-Fu Lee writes eloquently about this in his 2018 book, AI Superpowers. We should expect to see a new collaborative workforce where humans are supported by AI – the machine runs the analysis and humans can serve as the facade in order to persuasively and emotionally communicate the analysis outcomes with other humans.

New Skills

  • The problem we are going to see is that the new jobs created will require high levels of expertise, and most likely the first workers that will be displaced will not have the skills needed to simply redirect their careers.
  • Creating new jobs may prove easier than finding qualified individuals to fill them.
  • Yuval Noah Harari, in his latest book, 21 lessons for the 21stCentury, highlights that we may get the worst of both worlds – suffering simultaneously from high unemployment but also a shortage of skilled labor. It is the role of the education system to make sure that this doomsday scenario does not unfold.

Government and Politics

  • Although jobs will be created, it is dangerous to assume it will be enough to replace all the jobs lost. The possible social and political disruptions are so alarming that even if the probability is low, we should take it seriously.
  • It is important to remember the role of politics and government. Technology is not deterministic. The fact that something can be done does not mean it must or will be done.
    • For example, self-driving cars have already well surpassed the technical capability where it would be rational to replace all drivers. We could save hundreds of thousands of lives by replacing humans with robot drivers today. However, the legal framework still keeps autonomous cars off of our roads.
  • One prominent example is that regulation is likely to delay the widespread launch of driverless vehicles for long after they are technologically ready, and evidently safer for society. Driverless cars are already an objectively good choice in terms of safety, but it is likely to take at least another half a decade before we see them populate the roads.

Universal Basic Income

  • There are several key questions to consider when discussing UBI:
    • What goal do we want to achieve with UBI? If we want people to be objectively better off, it is very likely we can achieve this, although if we rely on UBI to make people subjectively happier, we are in for a tough ride.
  • We need to think critically about UBI as a concept:
    • What is universal? Is there going to be a global model? Will it be nationwide? Will there be an age range?
    • What is basic? Will we provide cash? Or should be provide goods instead? Will the income be enough for food only? What about education? and recreation?

Argument Nuances

Activities versus jobs

  • This is one of the most important nuances or deceptions to be aware of. It is vital to differentiate between activities at risk versus jobs at risk. A given job may entail 20 activities and if only 3 are automated, the worker will not lose their job. As many miss this nuance, the media is often guilty of grossly misrepresenting the reality, to instill fear. 

Misuse of research findings

  • Most notably, the famous Frey & Osborne paper from Oxford, explicitly states that they have made no attempt to estimate the jobs that will actually be automated. They instead only investigated ‘tasks’ to estimate the share of employment that may potentially, from a mere technological standpoint, be automated over an unspecified number of years.
  • However the media simply ran with the headline figure of ‘47%’ and misrepresented it as jobs that will be lost within the next 10 to 20 years.
  • This false claim was made despite a paragraph in the limitations sector of the paper warning against this interpretation: ‘we make no attempt to estimate how many jobs will actually be automated’. The media knows that fear sells.

What exactly is being estimated

  • Whenever presented with a numerical finding, it is worth asking, what did this paper wish to estimate? Often it is more likely that papers are estimating tasks at risk, industries at risk or share of employment in industries at risk.
  • Very rarely do research papers tackle head on the challenge of estimating jobs lost to automation because it involves so many moving parts that producing accurate results is incredibly complex.

Potential Solutions

How to think about finding solutions

  • How to avoid losing jobs (is this luddite?)
  • How to create new jobs, and prepare people for them?
  • How will we handle it if both of the above are unsuccessful?

How to avoid losing jobs

  • Government regulation can hold back autonomous vehicles and other technologies which will ensure jobs will not be lost. However, we must consider the long term feasibility and desirability of this approach.
  • Imagine email was regulated and capped in order to protect mailmen? What if light bulbs were heavily taxed to protect candle makers?

How to create new jobs and prepare people for them

  • It is likely that new jobs (at least some) will inevitably be created. It’s a tougher battle to prepare people for them.
  • We have no idea about the jobs that will be created in the future (social media influencers didn’t exist 10 years ago), and nor could they be predicted.
  • Government subsidization of a lifelong education sector: governments need to invest heavily in not only schooling and colleges but also in providing skills training to adults looking to change to a new sector as their current job is automated.
  • Reinvention assistance
    • Providing a living wage (potentially in addition to UBI), for those that are taking time off from work to transform their skillset or reinvent themselves to become an asset in the workforce again. A system of testing and a cap on duration will need to be put in place to ensure that the reinvention assistance program is not abused. 
  • Taking ownership
    • It is up to each individual to take ownership of their own destiny and prepare in the best ways possible. As the internet becomes more accessible to most, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, provide an opportunity to skill oneself without having the privilege of attending an elite institution.
  • Need for Psychologists
    • Will billions of people be able to reinvent themselves multiple times without losing mental stability? Most likely not, meaning that the field of psychology would also need to transform and be strongly supported by the government.
  • The elderly
    • As medicine improves, and people live longer, we are likely to see job creation for the youth in taking care of and entertaining the elderly.

How will we handle it if we lose jobs and cannot create new ones

  • There would certainly have to be some form of redistribution. Universal basic income is certainly a solution that jumps to mind here, however other methods of redistribution are certainly on the table too. This is another discussion entirely on its own, but certainly one worth having.

Further Reading

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C³ – Critical Creative Collaboration

This post was written in collaboration with the team at C³.

Who: We are a diverse community based in New York City. 

What: At its simplest form, C³ functions as an idea club. Every month we dig into a curated list of books, journals, articles, podcasts and documentaries focused on a core idea. We come together for a day of fruitful conversation and collect all our most insightful discoveries in a single post that we share here with you.

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