Exponential growth in technology will disrupt entire industries and create new ones. It will revolutionize the workforce as we know it. Many experts are asking the big questions: what jobs will be destroyed? How many will be created? How will the way we work change? How will we re-define work? And how will all of that, in return, influence our everyday lives?
It’s already happening
While many focus on a massively automated future, technology has been changing the nature of work for years. Widespread connectivity and computing are rapidly decentralizing the workforce.
The physical limitations of where we work are crumbling with the rise of the contingent workforce. A report by Ardent Partners revealed that 30% of company workforces are now made up of non-full-time employees, and that may grow to 50% by 2020.
This will allow us to work from anywhere in the world and to more freely choose who we work for, how long we work for them, and what we do with our careers.
Innovative job-search services like AfterCollege, for example, are using AI-powered match-making algorithms to connect employers with job-seekers at a faster rate. There is also a workforce emerging in the cloud, as companies like Upwork and Yandiki aim to break physical and social barriers to opportunities by enabling remote virtual work environments.
Meanwhile, online education platforms like Coursera allow people to take free online courses from anywhere and gain new skills to keep up with emerging fields. And companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Snapgood are pioneering the shared economy, making it easier to earn extra income by sharing unused assets, like a car or an apartment.
But all this is just the beginning. More disruptions are coming.
The disruptive power of technology
Perhaps the biggest impact of technology on the workforce will come from artificial intelligence. We’ve all read the headlines: the robots are coming, and they will take our jobs.
But the reality is more nuanced.
A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute found jobs involving data collection, data processing, and predictable physical work were most likely to be automated. In contrast, the hardest activities to automate are those involving expertise in decision making, planning, human interaction or creative work. Unsurprisingly, humans continue to outdo machines when it comes to innovating and pushing intellectual and creative boundaries. As MIT computer scientist Daniela Rus points out, “Humans are better than robots at abstraction, generalization, and creative thinking.”
Still, many question the impact of task automation on developing countries, where millions of people derive their basic income from manual labor-intensive work. Even within developed countries, many office jobs will soon be automated.
While this remains a valid concern, when it comes to the impact of the system as a whole, technological growth can also boost overall economic growth.
Even as AI and machine automation displace some jobs, they can also create more as demand for various technical skills in STEM increases. One 2011 study by Metra Martech found one million industrial robots directly created nearly three million jobs beyond STEM fields in areas of automotive, electronics, renewable energy, robotics, and food and beverage.
Technology will contribute to a more productive workforce, greater economic growth, and, consequently, more jobs in new areas.
Further, there is hope that both developing and developed countries will benefit from the lower costs of living from growth in areas like digital manufacturing, 3D printing, healthcare and communications — all of which may how much people will have to work to support themselves.
Technological growth has been described as a “resource-liberating mechanism” by experts like Peter Diamandis, who points out in an interview with Calvin College: “When I describe the world of abundance, it’s not a world of luxury — it’s a world where people’s basic needs are met: water, food, shelter, education, healthcare, communication, governance — and that liberates people to do more creative human talent.” Technology has and will continue to improve lives in many ways.
The future of education
Over the next two decades, as machines take over more monotonous/automatable tasks, it leaves us with jobs that demand more analytical and creative skills. We must rethink our education system and how we prepare our young minds for the workforce.
There will have to be a greater emphasis on skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and abstraction as opposed to rote memorization, shallow learning, and excelling at standardized tests.
We need to teach our students skills that align with mega-disruptive trends. We need to incentivize lifelong learning, as that is the only way future workers can stay relevant. We need to stop producing blind followers and instead develop more leaders, innovators, and creators.
Over the next century, even creative or higher-order analytical jobs aren’t safe.
We are already seeing AI writing songs, movie scripts and news stories. Companies like Google are even attempting to teach AI creativity and imagination. As such initiatives are perfected, even our “higher-order” jobs will be under threat. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman, “Only the jobs of innovators and entrepreneurs will be immune to outsourcing and automation.”
What impact will this have on society? What will we do for a living?
Well, we might not need to work for an income after all. Many, including Ray Kurzweil, have advocated for the concept of a universal basic income, a futuristic form of social security where all members of society regularly receive an unconditional sum of money in addition to any income they may or may not receive from elsewhere.
What are the consequences of this? Will we just work less? What will we do with all our free time?
As Kurzweil points out, “If you’re going to work less you’re not just going to sit around. What are you going to do with the extra time? Well, you'll do something that you enjoy, that you have a passion for. Why don’t we just call that work?”
One of the most powerful implications of the trend is that “work” will become more meaningful as we are left to perform jobs requiring more creativity, intellectual pursuits, and human interaction, potentially leading many of us to be happier than we are today.
The ideal goal for humanity should be to create a society where work is motivated by passion, creativity, and a desire to have an impact on the cosmos. The purpose of work should be to contribute to ongoing personal or human progress, whether technological, intellectual, or creative.
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