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There’s a lot of chat about the dangers to employment being driven by technology — with both blue and white collar work being threatened, according to a report from the University of Oxford.
But how much of this is future hype, and how much short-term reality? Here’s 10 reasons why nobody should worry about whether they will have something to do in the years to come:
- Because decisions are more than insights. We may be able to get a great deal of information from analytics, but there will often be the extra level of judgement that only a human can bring. This is as true in healthcare and politics, as in customer service and situation response.
- Because we have hair, nails and teeth. All of which require cutting, grooming and generally maintaining. The amount of time people spend having themselves looked after is as much in proportion to their wish to be looked after, as any hygiene factor.
- Because we ascribe value to human interaction and care. In hospitals or day care centres, schools or gyms, or indeed, in taxis and public services, nobody, young or old, wants to be cared for by a robot. Nor will they ever.
- Because we love craft. Robots have been part of assembly plants for many years now, and will continue to be. But we still love hand-crafted stuff. It may be possible to 3D-print a statue, but the merit of having something hand-made will sustain.
- Because we value each other and the services we offer. Our capabilities are open to exploitation, it was ever thus. But the fundamental nature of a value exchange — “I will do something for you, and you will recompense me” — remains a constant.
- Because we are smart enough to think of new things to do. Innovation, design, new thinking comes from people, not machines. And even if computers suggest new ways of doing things, it will be people that pick the ideas up and run with them.
- Because complexity continues to beat computing. Even as we harvest ever larger quantities of data via sensors and cameras, through algorithms and actions, the ability of computers to make sense of it all remains behind the curve. To get ahead requires brains.
- Because experience and expertise counts. A plumber told me that when push-joints were invented, his father was concerned there would be no more need for plumbers — he needn’t have worried. In this complex world, domain knowledge, earned over years, will retain its value.
- Because we see value in the value-add. If it is possible to produce a motorbike without manual intervention, it becomes a commodity — but then, the motorbike with customised artwork becomes the must-have item.
- Because the new world needs new skills. A wealth of potential opportunity exists for future employment, if only we knew what it was — from drone pilots to 3D print shops, from data brokerage managers to IoT farm designers. And beyond.
The bottom line is that even as computer power increases, as we automate manual activities, we lose neither the desire, nor the propensity for work. We have evolved such that we see work as necessary: we derive satisfaction from doing it ourselves, and sharing the fruits of our labours.
Production line jobs may come to be seen as a historical aberration, the temporary consequence of industrialisation with primitive technology. And some people, who have spent their lives working in one area, may find themselves needing to work in others.
But while jobs may change, we face neither a future life of leisure, nor a world of depression and worthlessness. The final sentence of the Oxford University report states, “For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.” Well, it just may be we already have such skills, and if only we weren’t slaves to the machine we might be able to make better use of them.