The Future of Work

What do we do after technology replaces us?

Posted May 23, 2019

Pixnio, used with permission
Future of Work
Source: Pixnio, used with permission

Many economies are made up of three sectors: 1) agriculture/mining (primary), 2) manufacturing (secondary), and 3) service (tertiary). Some may argue there is a fourth, focused on knowledge creation. Regardless, over the last several decades, advancements in technology have impacted jobs across all of them.

HBO’s documentary The Truth About Killer Robots explores the evolution of robotics and its relationship with humans. Don’t let the title mislead you, as the film is not focused on Terminator-like robots aimed at destroying the human race. What it did do is leave me wondering—what does the future of work look like? 

Let’s examine the first two sectors: agriculture/mining and manufacturing. Since the mid-1900s, technology advancements have reduced the number of people needed to work on farms and factories. New jobs were created in the service sector, where higher-paying positions required a post-secondary school education.

Fast forward to today, the service sector has an abundant amount of highly skilled workers with an undergraduate or postgraduate education. Similar to the first two sectors, technology advancements are just starting to impact the service sector. Companies are making heavy investments in artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, and robotics as a way to do more with less. 

Economists call this "Creative Destruction" (also known as Schumpeter’s gale). It’s a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist, in 1942, and it means the creation of something new will result in the replacement of what previously existed.

For instance, if you walk into a McDonald's today, the need to place an order at the counter is being replaced with self-service kiosks1. Whole Foods is testing out cashierless stores2. Amazon launched Amazon Air where drones deliver packages3. Uber invested heavily and piloted driverless cars4. The United States Postal Service is piloting self-driving trucks5. These are a few examples where the service sector is changing from high human interaction to a low-to-no human interaction sector. 

The latest technology doesn’t just impact cashiers and drivers, it also impacts office workers. For instance, recruiting functions have moved from building face-to-face talent networks to an algorithmic search function6. Artificial intelligence is designed to learn decision-making algorithms and patterns and, at some point, will reduce the number of employees needed in a company.

Concurrently, there is a societal shift in how we interact with each other today. Children and adolescents feel more comfortable interacting with each other electronically vs. in person. Coupled with snowplow parenting7, where parents create an obstacle-free environment for their children, the future workforce will not only prefer to be isolated but may also struggle to solve simple problems. 

The fundamental question is . . . what is next? 

It's not all doom and gloom. Fortunately, there are organizations like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—an intergovernmental economic organization comprised of 36 countries—already doing research and thinking about the state of the future labor market8. Although one of their infographics (click here to see) provides some additional statistics, it doesn’t really answer the question regarding the creation of a new sector or what will happen to the individuals impacted by robotics and automation. 

As an industrial psychologist, my career is rooted in studying people at work and demographic analysis. Our dependency on technology will not change, and in order to remain relevant in the workforce, an investment in continuing education will become important. Equally important is having or developing transferrable skillsets which could apply across industries. 

Unless there is a revolutionary discovery resulting in a new sector, forecasting what a highly skilled labor force will do for work when the job is being done by machines is difficult. Perhaps there will be a rise of entrepreneurship or a migration towards vocational work? What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts. 

Bernardo Tirado, PMP

Bernardo is a Behavioral Scientist and Industrial Psychologist with certifications in Six Sigma, Project Management, and Agile/Scrum.  He covers leadership and technology for PsychologyToday.com

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References

1. Rensi, E. (2018). McDonald's Says Goodbye Cashiers, Hello Kiosks. Forbes.com

4. Harris, M. (2019). Uber's Self-Driving Car Unit was Burning $20M a Month. Techcrunch.com

5. Romo, V., & Domonoske, C. (2019). U.S. Postal Service Is Testing Self-Driving Trucks. NPR.org

6. Seseri, R. (2018). How AI Is Changing The Game For Recruiting. Forbes.com

7.  Cain Miller, C., & Bromwich, J.E. (2019).  How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood.  NYTimes.com