We should welcome the future of work

Technology is changing today’s workplace. That’s a good thing.

Last year, Pew Research Center highlighted the growing concern across the world that robots and computers pose a significant threat to future work opportunities. In every country surveyed, a majority of respondents said that robots and computers will “probably” or “definitely” take over most of the jobs we have today.

Note: Find the full study here.

Responses vary widely by country. 52 percent of those surveyed in Greece answered “definitely” while 15 percent in the United States answered this way.

It is almost guaranteed that the jobs of today will not be the jobs of tomorrow, but what is unclear is what the jobs of tomorrow will be. A report by the World Economic Forum argues that the growth enabled by automation and technological change will likely lead to net job growth. Looking out only a few years in the future, the report makes some bold predictions:

75 million jobs may be displaced… while 133 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.

This growth will come in part from the expansion of professions that rely heavily on technology like data scientists, software developers, and e-commerce specialists. It will also come from new areas requiring workers, such as AI and machine-learning specialists, big data specialists, and blockchain specialists who can help shape emerging technologies to fit real-world problems.

Making jobs better, not obsolete

While 75 million may seem like a big number, not all jobs are equally susceptible to displacement. The degree to which a particular job can be automated depends a lot on the type of work you do. A McKinsey & Company report finds that the potential for automation varies widely and depends more on the activity being completed than on the occupation. McKinsey researchers find that automating predictable physical work (such as packaging products or maintaining equipment) is the most technically feasible while automating the jobs of those who manage others would be least feasible.

James Bessen, Executive Director of the Technology & Policy Research Initiative at Boston University School of Law, explains that automation’s impact will affect industries differently:

New technology can make products obsolete. For example, the automobile eliminated jobs for carriage makers, although it also created jobs for auto-body makers. Technology can also change work organisation. For example, communication technologies facilitate decentralisation, outsourcing, and offshoring, shifting work from one group of workers to another. Self-service technologies (e.g. the airline ticket kiosk) shift work to consumers. Information technology can facilitate new markets (e.g. Airbnb, Uber). Although all of these other sorts of technological change can be disruptive and eliminate jobs for some workers, there is no particular reason to expect them to create large job losses overall; new jobs are created while old ones are eliminated. Automation, on the other hand, might cause net job losses because machines reduce the human labour needed to produce a unit of output.

Of course, employers don’t just swap out a human for a robot just because they can. There are a number of considerations that have to be made when deciding where a company will make these types of investments. In particular, companies have to consider whether their consumers will accept interaction with a computer rather than a human. Recent studies find that an overwhelming number of those surveyed want to deal with a human being rather than a machine. One recent survey, looking at consumer satisfaction with “interactive voice response systems” (think: the computer you talk to before talking to a human customer service agent) found:

  • 10 percent were satisfied with their experience;
  • Approximately 35 percent of respondents found the systems difficult to use; and
  • 3 percent actually liked using such services.

Clearly, there are certain jobs the robots aren’t taking any time soon. Also, just because a task is completed by a computer does not necessarily mean a job is being displaced. Instead, there may be a decoupling of what is expected from a particular job, allowing individuals to focus on other, more valuable tasks. Take, for example, bank tellers. When ATMs (automated teller machines) were first introduced, the assumption was that they would automate the bank teller’s job. It was literally in the machine’s name. As Bessen (2016) shows, however, the introduction of ATMs has gone hand-in-hand with increases in human bank tellers.

Bank tellers and ATMs over time

Note: Borrowed from Bessen (2016)

As Bessen explains:

The number of fulltime-equivalent bank tellers has grown since ATMs were widely deployed during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Why didn’t employment fall? Because the ATM allowed banks to operate branch offices at lower cost; this prompted them to open many more branches (their demand was elastic), offsetting the erstwhile loss in teller jobs. (internal citations removed)

What can we learn from all of this? It seems likely that while some of today’s jobs will eventually be replaced by machines, others will emerge. Still, the nature of other jobs may shift to account for automation replacing those functions.

Changing the nature of work…and the workplace

Beyond disruption, the vast majority of jobs will be forever changed by developments in technology that will increase our productivity, shift how we think about work, and stretch our ideas of the workplace.

We are already seeing technology’s impacts on today’s changing workplace. Every day businesses across the world use tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting to hold virtual meetings. Using tools like Slack, employees can stay in constant communication with each other, even though they may not be in the same office, the same town, or even the same country for that matter.

For many of us living and working in 2018, the technology we rely on in our day-to-day jobs make us more productive, give us greater flexibility, and allow us to be more collaborative than ever. Improvements in technology have allowed for more flexible work arrangements that benefit workers and employers alike and allowed the growing gig economy to thrive. It’s also changing the way we talk about work.

Regardless of what we call it, remote work is growing rapidly. According to Gallup’s report on the “State of the American Workplace,” the percentage of American workers that worked remotely at least part of the time increased from 39% to 43% from 2012 to 2016. This remote work is enabled by ever-improving technology that allows workers to contribute to business goals and collaborate with their colleagues without having to be in the same room.

One potential concern with remote work is that workers may not be as engaged while working remotely as they would be if they were all in the same space. But Gallup actually found that workers who spend at least some of their time working remotely are more engaged in their jobs than those who never work remotely. By increasing employee engagement and allowing companies to leverage the best talent for the job, no matter where that talent lives, remote work benefits both employers and employees.

Advancements in technology are also allowing for significant growth in the gig economy. In 2017, 36 percent of the US workforce worked as freelancers, and that number will only continue to grow. Thanks to online communication and project management platforms, businesses can easily partner with multiple contractors to leverage their personal expertise on specific tasks. According to Upwork, freelancers are driven to this type of work for its flexibility and potential to maximize their income.

Tech policy scholars Christopher Koopman and Eli Dourado write that the gig economy may also promote economic inclusion for workers who may find fewer opportunities under traditional work arrangements. Freelancers may also be more prepared by the future, as they tend to reskill more frequently than non-freelance workers.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that advances in technology will disrupt the workplace, but they will also create new and better opportunities. Those who are willing to be lifelong learners and explore how their skills can complement technological changes have the most to gain. Instead of fearing the future, we should embrace what some are now calling the “New Industrial Revolution.” Truth be told, however, we’ve been saying that for a while.

Mentions of “New Industrial Revolution” from 1900–2008

Note: See Google Ngram viewer here.

Disruption and change in the way we work are not new. As technology has disrupted our lives, it has also helped grow our economy and expand the range of opportunities available.

But what will the future hold? While many make predictions, it’s hard to tell where the future of work will take us. After all, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted nearly 90 years ago that we’d all be working three-hour shifts and fifteen hour work weeks. While he was wrong about that, he was right about something else: The state of both workers and the economy, in general, have improved immensely over the past century due to technological advances and will only continue to get better.