In their prescient book, The Race Against the Machine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee put forward the argument that “many present-day organizations, institutions, policies and mindsets are not keeping up” with the pace of technological change. With the ever-increasing application of automation, machine learning, robots, cobots and artificial intelligence, that ominous conclusion is already making itself felt in the employment space.
Until recently, minimum, low or living wage workers were considered to be one of the most impacted groups by the effect of robotics and technology, but new research places more educated and higher wage workers directly in the path of influence by Artificial Intelligence. Though still difficult to predict, a recent study by the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings warns “AI’s distinctive capacities suggest that higher-wage occupations will be some of the most exposed.”
In the broad midsection of employment, between low and high wage earners, computerization has and will continue to replace traditional “white collar” and “blue-collar” workers performing clerical or repetitive tasks. As a result, all employment groups are at risk, and when the evolution is complete and when employment is dominated by low wage and very high wage earners, this will lead to greater polarization of the labor market which will only add to the current societal issue of income inequality.
These dramatic changes across the board in our work environment have, and will result in very broad social change, presenting significant organizational and Human Resources (HR) challenges.
Read any recent commentary on mobilizing our human capital to meet the needs of work in the future, and you will hear two recurrent themes: investment in education, and on-the-job skills training. But for various reasons, there are disturbing trends.
For example, from 1915 to 2005, time spent in school increased by an astounding six years, accounting for a 14 percent increase in worker productivity, directly affecting economic growth. But since 1988, many advanced economies have seen educational attainment level off, and in some cases fall.
The economic risk to those countries with advanced economies is evident when you consider that students completing higher levels of education are also those most likely to possess more “abstract” or human-only skills such as problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. Even with the looming impact of artificial intelligence, some of these high-value skills are unlikely to be displaced by automation in the immediate future, which is promising for the current mindset toward higher education.
With all of this in mind, how can today’s employers help develop tomorrow’s employees to meet the impact of technology on the future of work?
One-third of workers today are anxious about their future, and much of that concern can be attributed to technology and automation. While not surprising, it’s a very problematic statistic as that anxiety crushes self-confidence and inhibits a worker’s willingness, and ability, to adapt.
As more work moves online, self-employment and short-term contracts will become even more prevalent, resulting in less job security, more financial instability, and even greater stress. An out of office workplace, and the lack of a social environment means less job control and participation in decision-making. The inevitable anxiety is often cause for a number of physical and psychological health issues.
On the more positive side, research reports that 74 per cent of workers are prepared to learn new skills or completely retrain in order to remain employable in the future. But what those skills represent, and where training is made available, is one of today’s largest organizational challenges. The following should be considered when considering the future of work at your organization:
Start a meaningful dialogue on the future of work with your employees, your organization, and your community. If you have a healthy Corporate Social Responsibility program today, make more of it tomorrow. And keep in mind that you have internal as well as external audiences for these initiatives. Be as inclusive as your situation allows. Longer-term planning for five, 10, 15, and even 20 years out pays dividends and moves us away from our ‘next quarter’ mindset.
- Help current employees assess their strengths and how they can adapt them to a more automated world. The mantra for employers should be “Protect people, not jobs.”
- The coming workforce won’t be all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and application programmers. How your organization values and helps to develop human skills like collaboration, adaptability, and conceptual thinking will be increasingly important.
- Through on-the-job training, increase and broaden the development of critical technical skills specific to your organization. Do it today. The pace of change is accelerating.
- Establish high-performance work practices such as problem-solving teams, job rotation, and information sharing that will enable workers to enhance the benefits of advanced technologies.
Artificial Intelligence will influence the nature of work in profound ways. But the effect that it has on a human scale is already becoming obvious. On the positive side, people will be less likely to work in traditionally hazardous environments thanks to robotics and automation, leading to a decreased risk of injury or illness from work-related events. But the incoming younger generations may work longer, resulting in an aging workforce that may have higher levels of chronic diseases. More people will be working remotely in part-time, contract, or freelance positions, outside the traditional employee/employer relationship. This may increase loneliness, anxiety, and stress due to precarious employment. The cost of health care is just one of the issues that will shape the evolution of tomorrow’s workforce.
Stages of Automation
A recent study on the future of work by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) defines the stages of automation as:
Assisted Intelligence for example, today’s GPS and monitoring systems in our cars;
Augmented intelligence is the emerging technology that enables car-and ride-sharing services; and,
- Autonomous Intelligence like the rapidly approaching future of self-driving cars.
Technology and the ever-increasing amount of data it depends on will shape the future, but how much will humans affect that landscape?
The PwC study gives us four scenarios, each reflecting how society may temper, or accentuate the rise of technology:
In the first scenario, The Red World, technology and its most innovative specialists will define the economy. Specific, relevant skills and experience will result in the largest rewards, with those workers frequently moving from one contract opportunity to another. Innovation is key, and corporate size is out-flanked by small, more nimble, and agile, entrepreneurial companies. “Full-time” workers comprise less than 10 per cent of the workforce.
- In the second scenario, The Blue World, global corporations run the show. A core group of exceptional talent enjoy exceptional rewards but rely on the expertise and skills of freelance or contract “as needed” workers. Being a full-time corporate employee brings with it excellent compensation and benefits, and relentless pressure to perform. Augmented technology, medication, and implants help corporate employees push past the limits of human performance. Those employees are expected to develop and hone their skillset continually. The disparity in wealth distribution widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
The third scenario, the aptly named The Green World, sees the importance of a strong corporate social conscience rise in importance as a result of public opinion. Extensive use of automation and technology helps organizations meet these goals but come at a cost to jobs. A green agenda, the result of increasingly scarce natural resources, and demanding international regulations recognize that business has an impact that goes well beyond financial considerations.
The fourth scenario, The Yellow World, is the result of workers and companies reacting to public policy that seeks “fairness” in the distribution of wealth and resources. Workers feel the strongest loyalty to people in their skill set, not their employer. Worker associations, like “Guilds” from the Middle Ages, re-emerge, providing protection, benefits, and training for many types of workers. Technology and automation must temper their impact as workers push back against policies that favor others.
Workers that demonstrate leadership, empathy, and creativity will be rewarded and attracted to organizations that display these same traits. And the most successful organizations in any of the four worlds will be those that make foundational health and wellbeing programs a core offering, inspiring discretionary effort from their employees or contractors and as a result, achieving the highest level of productivity.
Individual wellbeing platforms on employee portals facilitate physical and psychological health support. In the future, these personalized, data-rich platforms will expand into other significant stress-related areas, such as financial health and interpersonal relationship health.
Constantly expanding technology, and immensely powerful social trends will shape the future of work, but which direction it takes is almost impossible to predict. Companies and individual workers should prepare for a number of outcomes. But one is very predictable: organizations that fail to adapt to these new realities will not be able to compete successfully, leaving their people frustrated, and alienated.
Dr. Tyler Amell is an internationally recognized thought leader on the topic of workplace health and productivity, as well as a frequent speaker and writer. He is a trusted advisor on strategic and integrated workplace health and is the Chief Relationship Officer at CoreHealth Technologies, a corporate wellness technology company that powers well-being programs for global providers. He is on faculty at Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences and is on the Executive Board at the Work Wellness and Disability Prevention Institute and as well as the National Wellness Institute. In the past, he has served on the executive board of the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), and the Canadian Association for Research on Work and Health (CARWH). He has held senior executive positions in a variety of sectors including human resources technology, consulting and healthcare.