Despite enabling widespread automation of routine tasks, mechanical technologies have created many more job opportunities than they have replaced in our Industrial Age past. How will the rapid progress of digital technologies affect work in our Information Age future?
It is axiomatic to say that everything is changing in the world of work. For many, these are exciting times with much to look forward to as we develop new technologies and capabilities to make our world a better place. The information revolution has brought many surprising – even disruptive – and positive benefits. Knowledge is abundant and more readily accessible than at any time in our past. Complex and clever supply chains deliver simultaneous choice, convenience and value for money for consumers. Platform technology has turned established industries upside down, creating exciting opportunities and challenges for innovation: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening”.1 Visions of our work future are similarly bold. Optimistic futurists predict the demise of the nine to five grind. Work in the future, they say, will be highly discretionary, with folk working on what they want, how they want and when they want. Vertical career progression up the corporate greasy pole will be replaced by portfolio working, with versatile individuals developing their own do-it-yourself career packages of complementary roles in multiple overlapping networks. This is a bright future of strong personal brand, constantly interesting work, instant results (and perhaps gratification), global connectivity and positive (and ceaseless) progress.
For others, it is a potentially scary future of high personal uncertainty. The economist, John Maynard Keynes, issued a cautionary note in the 1920s about the risk of “technological unemployment”.2 Echoing the fears that stoked the Luddite riots a hundred years earlier, Keynes envisaged a scenario in which advancing industrial technology would supersede the productive capabilities of humans for routine manual “blue collar” work (faster than alternative forms of employment could be found). One hundred years later, technological unemployment remains an uncomfortable prospect as digital technology advances to supersede potentially the cognitive capabilities of humans for “white collar” and professional work. A study by the Oxford Martin School forecasts that forty-seven percent of occupational categories, including accountancy, legal work and technical writing, are at risk of being automated within two decades.3
Technology is also indirectly transforming work by irrevocably changing the marketplace for goods and services. To better respond to intense competition and free market forces, employers will likely continue to seek greater flexibility of employment for all sections of the workforce. According to the United Kingdom (UK) Office of National Statistics, 2.4% of the UK adult working population was employed on zero hours contracts in 2015, an increase of 19% over 2014.4 Very few expect a job for life in the 21st century, but will it become the new normal in future to have no job at all?
However, there are strong reasons for optimism when considering the future of work. Past experience shows that technology has cumulatively created many more employment opportunities than it has eroded in our history.5 We need to understand the changing context of the world of work if we are to consider the world-scale political, economic, social and technological consequences for economies, organisations and individuals.
About the Author
Jonathan Trevor is Associate Professor of Management Practice at Oxford Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Jonathan’s principal research, teaching and consulting interests are the linkage between strategic and organisational priorities (people, structures, systems and culture) and the development of capabilities that give organisations a distinctive competitive edge.
1. Tom Goodwin, Crunch Network, 2015: http://techcrunch.com/2015/03/03/in-the-age-of-disintermediation-the-battle-is-all-for-the-customer-interface/#.qwngvf2:0sCd
2. John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1963, pp. 358-373.
3. Frey, C.B. and Osborne, M.A., 2013. The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation. Retrieved September, 7, p.2013.
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