Is The Future of Work an Oxymoron?

A wonderful article from one of our Experts, Anne. You can view her TABLE profile and book time with her here.

A recurrent theme of the “technology-meets-society” variety is the future of work. What happens when the baton is handed over to a generation of younger workers? The anxieties I most often hear are encoded in the following two questions:

• How can we make Millennials and post-Millennials more [motivated], [loyal], [adept], [insert whichever adjective] in the workplace?

• How do younger generations prepare for a future where almost half of all jobs could disappear to artificial intelligence or robots?

Independently these questions reflect legitimate concerns. But if you think deeply about the implied assumptions, you may notice that they answer each other.

Because young people will be less invested in a job that is not likely to persist.

And when human labor disconnects from production, ‘your job’ will become less salient as a means of providing physical sustenance and personal fulfillment.

World Economic Forum projects a net loss of 5 million jobs by 2020 where only 2 million new job types are likely to replace the 7 million lost to redundancy, automation or disintermediation.

But “job”- especially the type associated with life-long career choices is a 20th century construction. It belongs to an economic production modality where masses of human labor were extracted from agriculture to become input factors in industrial production systems. For a little over a century these systems, whether publicly or privately owned, responded with somewhat mechanical precision to fairly unchanging and structured patterns of supply and demand.

For this industrial system to work, a mutually dependent relationship between employers and employees kept production and consumption in balance. While international trade was common, production and ownership of resources were not globalized. Hence, labor markets were easier to regulate.

In the early 70s, Japanese automotive manufacturers introduced Western markets to more efficient and geographically modular ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing methods, which allowed a drastic reduction in inventory and for production of parts to be sourced from geographically different areas. Replacing the assembly lines, the West’s economies of scale were now challenged by a new economy of scope. The new ability to make stuff on demand brought efficiency, but also a new volatility that is often associated with the disenfranchisement of blue-collar workers. On-demand solutions became a harbinger of the political and economic changes we see today.

The next chapter eroding this industrial model is happening with digitization, additive manufacturing, distributed automation and robots taking over routine jobs, both physical and cognitive. With breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, especially neural networks and Deep Learning, high-skill non-routine jobs could be the next to go. Recently IBM’s supercomputer Watson succeeded in diagnosing a rare form of leukemia the patient’s physicians and oncologists had not been able to treat. This is because Watson can peruse 20 million research papers in 10 minutes, which was the time it took the supercomputer to make the diagnosis.

When goods and services are produced automatically at shrinking marginal costs, scarcity ceases to be the limiting factor for providing income or access to using them. Left missing is a mechanism that succeeds labor’s role in diffusing prosperity among people.

The shrinking middle class and the gig-economy

At first, humans will fight over the few scrappy jobs where humans continue to enjoy superiority. Most often in the form of contingent workers via digital matching platforms. While these platforms can provide better utilization of assets and labor resources, they typically fail at replacing 20th century jobs and the economic security these provide. If automation causes labor supply to grow out of proportion with demand, precarity will become a permanent condition, rusting away the security nets and working conditions the labor movement has built over a century. Between a shrinking cadre of some very lucky few, gig work will consist mostly of low-hanging fruits offering unpredictable rewards over crowdsourcing platforms.

To face these challenges young people are increasingly advised to become entrepreneurial and develop their ‘personal brands’ to stand out. While becoming a ‘solopreneur’ is probably sound advice in an uncertain economy, the strategy is still susceptible to a phenomenon that has been called “distributed convergence”, which means that you can be hyperlocal, but reach globally at the same time. Ironically, while self-starters can then reach faster and wider than before, competition is stiffer than ever. Success has never been more accessible yet farther out of reach. Want proof? Look at YouTube celebrities. How many views or subscribers does it take to turn fame into dollars? And how many besides Pew Die Pie and Joey Graceffa actually succeed? How many top-ranking professors do we need in a digital university system?

Pink is the New Black — Remaining jobs will be emotive and human

To find where humans provide value in the future job market, we need to look beyond the blue vs. white collar dichotomy. The nature of jobs that remain available to humans will be where the client or recipient specifically wants services rendered by a relatable, biological being, either human or animal. Think of us as fulfilling the roles of companion animals. Occupations that require an emotive connection will likely stick around for a while. Jobs as diverse as teachers, homecare assistants and sex workers fall into this category. In this Fast Company article futurist, global consultant and Leading Thought co-founder, Dr. LizAlexander notes a distinction between transactional and interactional conversations, where in which the latter type factors heavily in emotive jobs. For robots to step up to the challenge, machines’ neural networks of 1 billion synapses must come closer to the 1,000 trillion synapses of the human brain.

An interesting analogy is men’s entrance into pink-collar jobs. Male teachers are still anomalous in American schools, but have picked up recently as younger workers feel less beholden to traditional gender roles. Positive results can be measured in more than academic performance because the mere presence of male teachers provides important role models for boys, especially those growing up without fathers. Since children learn by modeling adults, a teacher’s gender has a separate influence from the didactics of teaching. This is also why humans will prefer other relatable humans — beings with whom we share a common humanness. Beings we can relate to because of shared flaws and vulnerabilities. Beings we like because we can relate. And you thought your teenager was wasting time while sharing “likes” and emojis in social media?

Gen Z less willing to invest in expensive careers

Generation Z knows the dynamic outlined above instinctively. Having grown up post-recession they don’t buy starry eyed into the dream their great grandparents built for their grandparents. They know the world has changed and they are getting ready to own that reality.

Generation Z’s future will be one where your means of subsistence is less tied to your demand in the labor market, but increasingly provided via other means. In this scenario, traditional skill metrics and expensive educations may not pay off.

Statistical observations support this scenario. A recent Universum survey found that 47% of Gen Z’ers consider joining the workforce before university, with as many as 38% of respondents unconvinced that universities will prepare them for the labor market.

And as far as trust in the market, as many as 69% of Americans under 30 said they would be willing to vote for a “socialist” presidential candidate. These stats indicate that the post-recession generation is losing trust in the old system. Of course, the caveat here can be summed up in a recent Washington Post headline: “Millennials like socialism — until they get jobs”. We have long known that voters tend to grow more conservative and more supportive of capitalism as they grow older and accumulate wealth.

But this is precisely the pivot

When we get to a point where high-skill jobs no longer guarantee financial security, maturing post-Millennials will be less likely to fall into the folds of their parents and grandparents. If we are indeed moving away from an economy based on ownership to one of access, Generation Z will be less inclined to use their voting rights to protect their assets — because they will own fewer of the assets they use. Nor will they put all their eggs in one (employer’s) basket. The outcome is hard to predict, but given the current trajectory, Gen Z will not base their votes, their identity nor their sustenance on old industrial models and corresponding ideologies. Hence, we might not be able to train them to become [insert whichever adjective] employees. We can only ask how to best adapt our old business models as well as our work-practices to fit new technology and post-modern society.

One thing is for sure, if we ignore these emerging scenarios, we will continue to ask the wrong questions.


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