Am I the worker of the future?

For every job, so many men
So many men no-one needs.
- Peter Gabriel ‘Don’t Give Up’

Annacis Island is a heavily industrial enclave in the southern reaches of metropolitan Vancouver. It is not a pedestrian or bike friendly environment; the thoroughfares are broad and businesslike, designed for their primary users: big trucks, and lots of them. They come and go endlessly, everywhere: trucks, trucks, and more trucks. On a recent visit, as I stood waiting at the bus stop (my usual mode of transport on and off the island) I had a disturbing insight.

Annacis Island would be a perfect testing ground for driverless vehicles. The closed, almost exclusively commercial environment makes it an ideal early adopter for autonomous vehicles (AVs). That this transition will come to pass is surely a question of when, not if. The technology is already being put through its paces in various road trials and industrial applications, and hardly a week passes without news of yet another new application of AVs. Volvo is testing driverless transport trucks in Europe. Amazon uses driverless forklifts in their distribution centers and employs drones to deliver goods. Google is road testing AVs in California. And on and on.

Which led to my next thought: That’s going to put an awful lot of people out of work. If you drive for a living, well, the writing is on the wall. But it’s not just drivers whose jobs are endangered.

In all kinds of industries, globalisation and digitisation are decimating entrenched interests and casting thousands of workers out onto the street. Example: ten years ago Blockbuster employed 83,000 people in 9000 bricks & mortar stores. Today’s video service of choice — Netflix — employs 2000 and its ‘infrastructure’ is cloud based computing power (mostly rented from Amazon). Do the math. Some learned thinkers estimate that half of today’s jobs will be automated out of existence. Half.

Next question: Where will all these people find work when technology makes them obsolete? And the Darwinian rejoinder: How will I avoid that fate?

How indeed. There’s a lot of chatter about what qualities will be needed to survive and thrive in the coming era of disruption. For example:

Education and experience will matter more than ever, as the jobs of the future will require high levels of both.

Freelancers will be in demand, as companies will prefer hiring short term, project oriented specialists over full time employees.

Flexibility will be valuable, in where and how and what one works on. Likewise the ability to adapt to changing work modes and processes.

Digital literacy — that’s self evident.

And here’s the big one: Work in a creative field or function. Creative endeavours are one area in which we humans have a wide, wide lead over machines, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Creativity will always be in demand — in all kinds of industries — and creative folk will always be employable.

It’s an interesting list — and by no means a complete one — but what really resonates is how well it describes my own present situation. Sometime in the past twenty years — and completely unwittingly — I seem to have morphed from Company Man into Worker of the Future.

How did that happen?

In 1996, after a quarter century of full time employment, I quit my media job in the city and moved to a rural acreage. My hope was that I could eke out a living as a part time freelance writer / communications consultant while devoting the rest of my time to growing our own food and living a more sustainable lifestyle.

This plan hinged on a then-still-emerging technology called the Internet, an amazing new tool that would enable me to communicate with clients and move work materials anywhere, anytime, all from the computer in my den. (Two decades on, this sounds quaint, but at the time it was still a pretty radical notion.)

The new paradigm demanded changes of me and my way of working. I was fortunate in already having many of the assets listed above, but I still had to learn new skills and cultivate new habits. The combination of becoming simultaneously (a) self-employed and (b) quasi-self-sustaining was a powerful motivating force, and curiously, the two situations were surprisingly complementary. As a result, I have, by accident or design, acquired an array of diverse new skills and extended my knowledge base into many esoteric new areas.

In short, it’s all worked out rather well. And, it seems, put me in a pretty strong position going forward, employment-wise.

Which is all well and good for me. But what about all those truckers on Annacis Island?

About thirty years ago I attended a management training course. The instructor related a story in which one of the big Canadian banks called a meeting of all its tellers. The bank told them that, within five years, most of their jobs would be gone, lost to automation. Assuming they wanted to continue a career in finance, they should begin looking at options and pursuing training now — and the bank would fully support them — so that they had prospects for the future. (Hard to believe that a Canadian bank would be so enlightened as to treat its staff in such a paternalistic and supportive fashion, but as I said, this was a long time ago.)

That same conversation should be happening, right now, in hundreds of companies of industries. For the sake of the vehicle-less drivers, the redundant rental clerks and all the other Workers of the Past.

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