It seems that whatever the country, whatever the economic context, the critical question is becoming ever more pertinent; what is the future of work in an era of exponential technology development?
Artificial intelligence is arguably the big game changer and becoming more commonplace. We already see narrow AI in use in internet searches, customer targeting applications, and in predictive analytics. But AI has much greater capability that will merge into every aspect of our lives in the future.
Increasingly devices will learn more about us, provide an ever-increasing range of support and take on more of our tasks. We are automating a lot more activity in every sector and that is set to continue at an accelerating rate.
In our recent book on The Future of Business, we identified 30 different trillion-dollar industry sectors of the future, which we grouped into clusters. We expect these clusters and the underlying sectors to be affected radically by exponential technology developments:
- Information and communications
- Production and construction systems
- Citizen services and domestic infrastructure
- New societal infrastructure and services
- Transformation of existing sectors such accounting, legal, and financial services
- Energy and environment.
The McKinsey Global Institute looked at which technologies will drive the economy of the future. They found that mobile internet, the automation of work knowledge, the Internet of Things (where many factory, office, and household devices are connected to the internet), and cloud computing would all form part of a transformative information technology (IT) backdrop and be the most significant creators of new economic value.
Given the importance of the issue, it is not surprising that there have been a number of research projects exploring what this scale of technological change means for the future of work.
A 2013 study on the Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School explored the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and asked; “Which jobs are most vulnerable?” The study found that 47% of workers in the USA had jobs at high risk of potential automation. Accountants fell into the ‘most at-risk’ category (along with transport and logistics, ie taxi and delivery drivers), sales and services (cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers), and office support (receptionists and security guards).
A McKinsey Global Institute report (2016) looked at the automation of the global economy, based on a study that explored 54 countries representing 95% of global GDP, and more than 2,000 work activities.
The report said that the proportion of jobs that can be fully automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology is less than 5%, although for middle-skill categories this could rise to 20%. It also said that, based on current technologies, 60% of all jobs have at least 30% of their activities that are technically automatable; and that ultimately, automation technologies could affect 49% of the world economy (1.1 billion employees and $12.7trn in wages). China, India, Japan and USA account for more than half of these totals. The report concluded that it would be more than two decades before automation reaches 50% of all of today’s work activities.
The World Economic Forum’s study into The Future of Jobs (2016) saw an increasingly dynamic jobs landscape. It estimated that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in job types that don’t yet exist, and that 3.5 times as many jobs could be lost to disruptive labour market changes in the period 2015–2020 than are created. While the study saw job losses in routine white-collar office functions, it also saw gains in computing, mathematics, architecture and engineering-related fields.
- The report identified a number of job categories and functions that are expected to become critically important by 2020:
- Data analysts – leveraging big data and AI;
- Specialised sales representatives - commercialising and articulating new propositions;
- Senior managers and leaders - to steer companies through the upcoming change and disruption.
Our own view is that we could well see 80% or more of current jobs disappearing in the next 20 years. Some will become obsolete, others will be fully or partially automated and in many cases tasks will be redesigned to eliminate the need for human input and decision making.
The big question is whether these jobs will be replaced by a combination of entrepreneurship, increased investment in education and training, human endeavour and the rise of the six sector clusters described above?
We all like to work in a world that is calm, stable, and predictable but the reality is very different. That world is changing ever faster, so we need to become proficient at developing and working with a new set of survival skills for the 21st century that include foresight, curiosity, sense making and accelerated learning, with a tolerance of uncertainty, scenario thinking, coping with complexity, and collaborative working.
Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington and Rohit Talwar of Fast Future