The robots are definitely coming, but you might not need to be afraid.
Should you fear the future of work? Rose Hoare looks at where your job is going, and what you can do to future-proof your career.
You are probably aware of the disheartening predictions about robots coming to steal your job. They are expected to appear one day, smiling pleasantly and speaking grammatically perfect English (and Mandarin and French too) as they glide about on castors, to relieve you of the thing that gives your life meaning, anchors your identity, and pays your bills.
How many jobs will disappear? The numbers predicted differ slightly depending on who you ask — from 24% to 46% over the next two decades — but the trends are basically the same. Labouring, clerical and admin jobs, machinery operators and drivers will be the first to go. Areas dominated by primary industries, like the West Coast, will be worse off than white-collar cities like Wellington (though white collar jobs are also at risk). Traditionally male-dominated jobs are likely to be affected more. Many economists, on both sides of the political spectrum, believe a Universal Basic Income will become necessary.
Some predictions are less bleak. Those who programme the robots should be okay, and these rising tides could lift a few boats. According to Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti, author of The New Geography of Jobs, innovation jobs create three times as many service jobs as manufacturing. In “innovation clusters” like Silicon Valley, the average school leaver typically earns more than university graduates in manufacturing towns, because these local economies are enriched when highly paid tech workers spend their lovely discretionary income on things like nannies, haircuts and barista-style coffees.
So far, there’s little evidence of robots impacting New Zealand’s economy. Unlike much of the Western world, our unemployment rate hasn’t been this low in almost a decade, and productivity (a measure of how efficiently we convert labour to goods and services) remains low, despite long hours worked.
Eventually, new jobs we can’t yet conceive of will surely come into existence, and some expect that the overall number of jobs will stabilise, as has happened after previous industrial revolutions.
But everywhere I look, I see a trend towards less labour. Some of the biggest, most profitable companies in the world (Facebook, Uber) thrive by having a small staff footprint (and a tiny tax bill) in relation to their revenues. Amazon and Apple aren’t exactly known for richly rewarding their workers. And the growth of the gig economy seems likely to result in decreased protections and depressed wages.
Increasingly, tasks that were once someone’s job are also being devolved back onto customers. We now check out our own groceries, pump our own gas, book our own travel, and are required to do all sorts of maddening little customer service tasks online.
Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum conducted a thought experiment, pondering eight possible futures we could see, depending on how quickly technology develops, how fast human learning evolves in response, and to what extent migration is controlled.
The basic problem was the same in each scenario: if technology rapidly outstrips human learning, then suddenly lots of humans won’t be of much use anymore. (This would increase the pressure to automate and compound the problem.)
The bleakest scenarios lead to widespread unemployment, inequality, the disintegration of the economy as we know it, and large-scale conflict. But in the happiest scenarios, “companies have invested heavily in training systems and reskilling” and the education system produces a new generation “that embraces lifelong learning” so that “more workers than ever before…contribute a wider range of skills to society and the economy”.
The message is clear. Humans can’t hope to outperform robots at certain things, but they can cultivate qualities that will stand them in good stead in an automated world, so they can keep pace with and be part of the innovation.
Everyone needs to become comfortable with digital technology (and not just iPhone games!) and cultivate an open, curious mindset. Educators need to nurture not just technical skills, but human ones like communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and empathy. Businesses need to invest in their people, and policy-makers need to support all of the above.
Don’t worry too much if you’re eight years old
David Glover is Unitec’s executive director of partnerships, a consultant with 15 years’ experience in education, and the co-author of a new book about the future of work. Don’t Worry About The Robots offers surprisingly practical suggestions about how to maximise your employability in the new, disrupted world.
Glover is clearly not in panic mode. As scary and enervating as change might be, he breezily suggests stepping up to the challenge with your game face on. Being confident, flexible and constantly eager to learn will help you absorb future shocks, and these qualities can be self-taught.
Acquiring this mindset begins with a deep and thoroughgoing self-appraisal. In his book, Glover suggests considering your personal history (including what your forebears did), the feedback you’re often given, and times when you’ve felt particularly engaged (or the opposite) to develop a clearer picture of what you value the most. Once you understand your values, you can start trying to live them, build a “personal brand” around them, and pursue work that furthers them. It’s a powerful way of reframing the problem — rather than ‘take whatever job you can get’ it’s more like, ‘find a job that gets you’.
He suggests parents or elders can help youngsters with this self-exploration. “When we meet a young person, we ask them what they want to be when they grow up. We should be asking them ‘What do you like doing? What do you want to be able to do?’ That helps uncover what motivates them, and if you can answer that, you’ll be much more successful than if you’re in a work environment that doesn’t match your values.”
The next step is to manage your fear of failure, training yourself to embrace uncertainty, overcome in-built reflexes that might paralyse you or lead you to self-sabotage, and learn to see failure as “just another name for a learning opportunity”. With change on its way, he writes, “it is now riskier not to take some calculated risks.”
Once you have a sense of purpose and a certain level of confidence, proactively pursue development opportunities, using mentors, networks, or even forming your own advisory board.Glover and his co-author both have the kind of sector-jumping ‘portfolio’ careers that are expected to become more common— his book cites research which suggests that today’s 15 year olds will have 17 different jobs across five careers — but he believes even those with full-time jobs will need to take ownership over things that used to just come with a job, like retraining, upskilling, and a career path.
Perhaps most importantly, our learning needs to evolve to be self-managed, practical, and life-long. “A lot of our institutions are based on a Victorian model, where you sort learners by age, run them through a system, and then push them out the other side, ready for life,” Glover says. “But employers tell us they’re not ready for life. At Unitec, we work really, really hard to make sure the learning is practical and ready to be applied in real life. We’re much more interested in that than academic results.
“I think our education system is much better at self-reflection — if you go into a school today, the teacher will say, ‘today, the learning outcome is X’ — but I’m not sure it’s a habit for people. It wasn’t until later in life that I began to understand the power of managing your learning, consciously checking on it and improving it, and using it as a compass in your life.”
And although culture hasn’t always traditionally been welcomed in the workplace, it’s another possible source of strength and guidance. In Don’t Worry About The Robots, poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh talks about the way institutions tend to perpetuate their own culture in a way that “wears you down if you’re not conscious of it”. As part of her kaupapa, and as a Pasifika poet-scholar, she says, “I challenge other Pasifika leaders in the corporate environment not to leave their cultural selves at the corporate door — it may be the source of their greatest contribution to their workplace, to our world.”
Do worry if you were expecting to retire at 65
Frances Valintine is one of the country’s foremost digital educators, and a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She’s the founder of Tech Futures Lab, an incubator which helps business leaders navigate digital transformation and offers a Master’s programme for execs looking to upskill, and founder of The Mind Lab by Unitec, which offers applied programmes for both kids and teachers in digital and collaborative learning.
She points out that whereas today’s primary school-age kids are habituated to digital technology, those who are mid-career or even approaching retirement are more likely to find the future disorientating.
“Retirement is 65, but our average life expectancy is creeping up to 85 — and most people don’t have 20 years of savings,” she observes, pointing out that when the pension was originally set at 65, life expectancy was 67. If the retirement age were adjusted based on the same rationale, people might continue working until they’re 80.
This doesn’t faze Valintine, who sees the average 65 year old as having plenty of skills, such as project management, that would easily translate into a digital environment. “We are the sum of many parts, including formal education, things you do on a job, things you’ve experienced and things you’ve made mistakes with and learnt the hard way — all those things are transferable,” she says.
“When we think about the future of work, we think of technology far too much, rather than how people interrelate with technology and what technology is designed to do, which is to make people’s jobs easier. We need to hone in on the skills people are uniquely qualified to do, things like strategy, communication and collaboration.”
Valintine has noticed that some older people seem reluctant to engage with technology — their plan seems to be to just sit it out. “The eyes would glaze over and they’d say ‘That’s not my thing. I’m not into technology’ or “I’m too old to learn”, almost dismissing their responsibility to understand the new world,” she says.
“At what point does it become a burning issue? When you suddenly find yourself redundant for the third time? Or is it when you find your earning capacity is much lower now than it was five years ago, because you haven’t got the right skills? Or is it when you’re looked over time and time again in your job because people coming up have got more adaptable skills?”
“Fear of technology enables them to sort of opt out, when actually getting on that conveyor belt of knowledge is so much more empowering. We’re trying to take away that fear, because it’s part of learning, and the more you grapple with these new ideas, the more you get into the habit of learning and being open to lots of new things happening all time.”
Valintine likens adult learning to a gym membership: it’s hard at first, but the more you do it, the more you like doing it. “I see it around me every day. Suddenly the light goes on and there’s this confidence that comes with it.”
Things to think about if you’re looking for a job
Both Valintine and Glover expect job-seeking to change. Glover expects people to apply with a portfolio of work rather than a list of jobs, and Valintine expects social media, with its vast caches of data about human behaviour, to play a part in helping connect workers and companies.
She estimates less than 10% of her current staff came through job ads. Most approached her directly or indirectly, or used social media to contact a hiring manager, and she expects more jobs to be based on deliberate choices.
“Even if you’re 50 years old, really think about what you stand for and what type of work environment you want to be in. What’s the culture? Is it small, large, multicultural? Is it 9 to 5 or do you want the flexibility of remote working? Those things need to be thought through and acted upon, because more and more, people will expect you to knock on their door and say, ‘I’m going to work for you because this is what I can bring to the table and because I love what you’re doing’.”
Like Glover, she advises facing the future with confidence, regardless of how you might feel. “The worst thing we could do is imagine we’re heading towards a cliff and our skills are no longer needed, so we opt out. Because if we opt out, we’re literally going to have a very different future than if we opt in.”
Valintine also suggests both job-seekers and those in work negotiate learning breaks, as part of their career path. “Whether that’s one day a week or two days a month when you go and do different things. Or you could say, nine months of the year, I’ll get contracts and the other third, I’ll be doing some other learning. If you build that into your plan, you can afford to do it, because you’re working for the majority of the year.”
Things to think about if you’re an employer
The onus to keep learning is not just on individuals. Glover believes employers will increasingly need to offer more learning opportunities. “To get the right people, showing that you care about more than just the job you’re hiring them for is going to be important — that includes developing people and supporting them to acquire new skills that might only be relevant to their next job,” he says.
“There are already employers who dedicate time for employees to upskill. Google, until recently, used to say to its people, ‘on Fridays, you can do whatever you want. Play, experiment, learn, come up with the next big thing’. That’s an extreme example, but I do think employers will more and more value their humans because of what they know and can do, and less because they’re just a pair of hands that process things. I think we’ll see a lot of change, in terms of employers owning and supporting a learning environment. People who do that successfully will be known for it and will get the pick of the best talent. We’ve seen it in the software industry where there’s an absolute war for talent, and we’ll see more of that.”
Valintine also thinks New Zealand businesses will need to invest more in training and professional development, and offer flexibility for time spent learning, which they’re sometimes oddly reluctant to do. “It’s one of the greatest mysteries to me, because investing in people who are great at what they do just seems to be the most sensible thing they could possibly do. But so many say, ‘We don’t want to invest in people because they might leave.’ What if you don’t invest and they stay?”