The future of work: how we all need to meet the challenges of an evolving digital age

Stephen Attenborough Visual 512x512


At various points throughout history the nature of work has radically changed. We saw this with the industrial revolution and also at the turn of last century. At one stage in the late 1800s there were up to 200,000 horses in New York providing transportation. Managing horses was one of the biggest industries around. By 1915 they’d all but disappeared, having been replaced by mass-produced cars. Not only did people survive, they adopted new industries and continued to thrive.

Once again, work is in a fairly dramatic state of flux due to the rise of the digital age. Due to automation, AI, computers, robotics, algorithms and the like, labour intensity has changed. We just don’t need the same amount of people to create the same output in the new data economy.

Gloom versus growth

So what does that mean for the workers of the future? If you place too much stock in economic forecasting, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little nervous. In a 2016 study the Australian Productivity Commission predicted that 40 per cent of jobs may be lost to automation over the next 10 to 15 years. Meanwhile researchers Frey and Osbourne in a seminal 2013 study claimed nearly half of 702 occupations in fields such as production processes, logistics, administration, transport and service could also disappear.

However, in a speech presented to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) last year, the commission’s Deputy Chair Karen Chester put things into more perspective. As she pointed out, new technologies can also create new jobs. What’s more, not all tasks can be automated, or should be automated - in the future do you really want a robot cutting your hair?

And whilst routine manual and cognitive jobs have already fallen in general from 50 per cent to 37 per cent, non-routine manual and cognitive jobs in areas such as office management, childcare, nursing, aged care and software engineering have increased from 43 per cent to 53 per cent.

What workers can do – it’s a matter of the right education

As for those white-collar professions with traditional career trajectories the future of work lies with continual upskilling. Yes, there’ll most likely be increased competition meaning some people may ‘miss out’ to an extent, so each individual will need to make a conscious effort to up their game and make themselves more marketable. I feel there’s now an onus on all educational institutions to equip students with the right skills for right now and beyond.

Unfortunately, how we train students for work hasn’t really changed a lot in 50 years. We’re still in two-year MBA mode, even though most people I know don’t really have time to do a two-year MBA. What would be more beneficial are short micro courses on things like understanding Google, coding, AI and social media. Small, achievable bite-sized courses would serve a modern-day workforce much better and give people the edge in a competitive market.

What employers can do – constant re-skilling is key

One of the most important things workers need in the modern age is the ability to think laterally and critically. Choosing the right place to work, rather than “this will do for now”, is vitally important. I feel workers should be aligning themselves with companies that are forward thinking. To a large degree, the future of a thriving, successful workforce will depend on companies investing in training and upskilling.

Global powerhouse Amazon has just announced they’ll spend US$700 million in the coming years reskilling 100,000 of their employees to be dextrous with AI and data. They’ve realised they can’t rely on education systems and other employers to produce the kind of workers they require, so they’re going to train all their own employees themselves.

What’s more amazing, is that even after arming their workers with invaluable new skills, they won’t be tying them down to the company. Employees will still be free to leave and take their new knowledge with them. Amazon simply wants to be known as an attractive employer who has a lot to offer their workers, rather than the other way around. This is a really disruptive and bold move and other companies need to adopt similar approaches so future workers will have more skills and options.

Looking forward to the future not backwards

To navigate the workforce of the future, there really needs to be clear responsibilities and guidelines adhered to by employers, individuals and the government-backed education. Each group needs to do their part to ensure as many people are possible are fulfilled.

Work is already becoming more modular due to changing lifestyle needs. It’s no longer so much a full-time 9 to 5 contract in an office space. More people will want to work remotely, and employees need to embrace that if they want to attract and retain the best talent. We’ll also do more higher cognitive tasks and not so much “grunt work”, so the future of work will be more interesting in general which can only be a good thing.

As someone who’s more optimistic than pessimistic, I think there’s much to look forward to. I feel the estimation that 40 per cent of Aussie jobs may go due to automation is probably an extreme prediction. Conservatively it may be closer to 10 – 20 per cent of jobs going, but then again that group may then be employed in some other field that hasn’t even been tapped into yet. Just because something could happen, doesn’t mean it will happen. In any event preparation is the key and I feel in time we’ll rise to the new challenges.