Updated: Jul 25, 2020
It's not possible to accurately predict the future, of course. However it is possible to get a sense of how things are likely to change over the coming 10 to 15 years. Today's 5 year olds will enter the workforce from about 2031 to 2035, and as you'll see below the working environment that they join will be dramatically different from the one we experience today. So what's going on, and what's likely to happen?
This conversation will evolve constantly over the coming years, but here's a small selection of current thinking and trends, which will be added to in future posts. I'll take a look at implications for teachers, parents and principals at the end of this post.
Should we panic about automation now or later? The answer is - it depends. The argument goes here that robotics, artificial intelligence are already taking over several industries, and will come in three waves: 1. machine learning, 2. augmentation and 3. autonomy. The uninformed and unprepared are likely to lose, with an interesting point being that those whose identity strongly correlates with their occupation may be more at risk. There are some helpful further links, taking you to https://willrobotstakemyjob.com/ and a guide to getting and staying employed over the next 10 years.
This article comes at transformation of work from a historical perspective initially, stating that technological improvements have traditionally displaced work, and solutions were found - fair enough. But is this time different? In some cases yes, in others no. Here, the less-educated with jobs involving repetitive tasks are at risk of both losing their jobs and missing out on retraining opportunities. Others (including teachers) are less at risk, but the disruption is likely to be significant for some groups. Solutions involve education for 21st Century skills, retraining opportunities, wage insurance and unemployment reform.
Here's another view of what the world of work might look like in 2035, presenting four possible scenarios:
1. The Big Tech. Economy - rapid and unchecked technological development, low costs, greater wealth concentration, unemployment, uncertainty.
2. The Precision Economy - huge numbers of sensors deployed gathering and analysing massive amounts of data. Everything is tracked, ratings are pervasive and everyone is 'hyper-connected'.
3. The Exodus Economy - an economic crash, followed by low productivity, low skills and low pay. New economic models emerge, but it's a time of struggle.
4. The Empathy Economy - technology advances, but so does regulation, automation is managed to protect workers, new products are designed to work for everyone and the environment.
So what does this look like on the ground and in the factories? The articles are many, but we've found three examples to get the conversation started. The first is at Walmart, which is starting to use robot floor cleaners in its stores. The idea is to "... free up existing Walmart employees to have more time to perform other tasks ...". What is more likely happening is that cleaners are no longer being hired, or at least fewer of them.
Our second example is from Amazon, in which a robot in one of its warehouses tore open a can of bear repellent, causing 24 workers to be hospitalised. Amazon's warehouses are becoming famously automated, with robots augmenting and/or replacing human workers. The idea is to make the work environment safer and more efficient, which may or may not be happening, depending on what you read. There don't seem to be too many accidents like this, but there are robust discussions about the benefits of automation to workers, and questions about working conditions at Amazon.
One more - there is research emerging that appears to demonstrate that workers can become demoralised by their robot colleagues. Long story short, it's all to do with loss aversion, in which people don't try as hard if a competitor is doing better. If a robot is performing tasks more efficiently, it may negatively affect the humans around it, reducing their productivity and affecting their wellbeing. The argument goes that robot designers need to take the human factor into consideration when designing robots, along with task optimisation.
This just doesn't affect unskilled, blue-collar workers - all of us need to get used to this new reality, fast. Robot Process Automation (RPA) is happening, and investment is huge and growing. RPA "... allows non-engineers to quickly create software robots (known commonly as "bots") to automate rules-driven business processes ...". RPA takes over analysis of large amounts of data from humans, is trained to make intelligent decisions with the data, and is designed to automate business processes, traditionally the domain of trained and skilled humans. People will still be needed for 'judgement-intensive' tasks, but every routine cognitive business task is at risk, right now.
But it's not all bad news of course, opportunities are emerging. There's currently a global shortage of Machine Learning Engineers, and the job is highly paid. As is being a Blockchain Engineer. There's also a shortage of Data Scientists. The problem of course is that although these roles pay well, they are limited to a few, something that may cause problems for the many - similar to the Big Tech. Economy described above. We'll see.
So what do these sources tell us? They tell us that the workplace is changing rapidly, and likely to continue. What can we do about it as a (very brief) start?
Elementary Teachers - get your students used to the concept of change. Discuss and explore the idea of how things are changing - notice it together all the time. Model and talk about lifelong learning, and make learning a positive experience so that they'll want to continue doing it.
Middle School / Secondary Teachers - you can start to dig into the changing nature of work. Look at historical technological shifts alongside this one, and draw some comparisons. Model and talk about lifelong learning, and make learning a positive experience so that they'll want to continue doing it.
School leaders - provide/model the conditions and expectations so that the above can happen. Figure out a way to get your careers counsellors interested and looking at future skills shortages and opportunities. Start conversations with your communities.
Parents - rethink what opportunity looks like. Because we've all been educated in some way, we tend to default to what we already know and understand when it comes to educational pathways for our children. Find out more about how work is changing, look at projected skills shortages, stay up to date with trends, and help your child's teachers make learning enjoyable experience so they'll want to continue doing it after they finish school.
Thank you for joining us this week. We welcome any and all feedback and comments, and please contact me with any questions or suggestions you have.