The future of work has changed. The pace of the journey into tomorrow’s world of automation and cyber assisted living has accelerated. Accelerated big time.
Covid-19 isn’t disappearing with a flattened curve. The simple maths tells us that only between five and seven percent of the population has actually had Covid-19. That means that all the disruption that this micro-disrupter has caused so far is far from over.
The future of work and learning has already changed as a result. People realize that there are other ways of living. Some of it is good and some of it isn’t. Good or bad, it won’t be the same.
It has been estimated that trillions of dollars have been lost in the Covid-19 economic train wreck. Governments around the world are scrambling to mitigate the disastrous effects. People being urged back to work are reluctant out of fear of the unknown. Second (or more) waves are ahead of us, and we just don’t know what tomorrow holds.
But, one thing that we are certain of. If International MegaCorp had been largely automated, a lot of normal business activities could have continued. Ocado, the automated supermarket, just needs a self-driving autonomous delivery fleet (close by all accounts) and much of the supermarket business could (and likely will) be theirs.
There are those who jeer at the thought – people like to go out shopping. They need to consider the epic change in mindset that has occurred in the last four months. The change in mindset that will be reinforced as we continue to grapple with this micro-disrupter for the next couple of years – the realistic vaccine predictions of actual scientists, not promises from gut driven prognosticators.
People are still going out shopping, but the atmosphere has changed. Shopping isn’t the positive or neutral experience it was last Christmas. It has become a pensive experience for most rational people. The “what-ifs” are real and there are too many unknowns for us to go back to the former way of doing things.
Large, open-plan offices have become a place to worry about. Covid-19 isn’t yet an aerosol transmitted micro-disrupter, but every mutation (hundreds already) brings the possibility (or probability) closer. Personal and household safety is a powerful motivator for change. Any rational and privileged individual who has been able to self-distance and/or self-isolate has done so. We don’t want to live under the exposed foreboding uncertainty that comes with working as a cashier at the local supermarket. The same feelings are now surfacing with the push to reopen the economy. There are many who don’t want to go back to the way things have always been.
Faced with the trillions lost in just a few months of disruption, the giants of business are already looking at automation in a different light. Carefully thought-out business plans for a transition to cyber-assisted automation are being accelerated at a blinding rate. The time for the needed transition occurred months ago and it won’t be put off again.
Although there are many cheerleaders who tout the job multiplier that automation will bring, actual research into the effects of automation draw a devastating picture of the coming tsunamic disruption ahead of us. Acemoglu, LeLarge, and Restrepo (2020) paint us a picture of a job enriched environment for the first company in. They get more business because of the lower cost of doing business that automation brings. Fewer people are needed for the core product, but more people are needed to support the other aspects of business (marketing, transportation, etc.) as it expands to meet the increased demand from lower prices.
The problem is that there is no second place. What is the name of the other search engine/advertising behemoth on the internet? We live in a world of “winner takes all”. The other competitors, the ones who didn’t automate fast enough, will disappear along with ALL the jobs that they provide. The results are that the successful Automator increases the number of people working for them while all of the others working in the sector find themselves attached to a company that failed to automate in time. They find themselves attached to a sinking ship. The result is a net loss of people working within a job sector.
The most optimistic predictions for the number of economically displaced people through automation is in the neighborhood of 45 – 60 million over the next 30 years. Less optimistic, but more realistic projections range from 900 – 1,500 million (yes, that’s 1.5 billion) over the next 15 years. Covid-19 has just brought the pessimistic prediction closer to reality.
So, who will be working at the end of this realignment of the world of work? I believe there will be six categories:
- lower paid non-elite workers who will be forced to work under poor and strenuous conditions because of the large supply of workers competing for the scarcer demand for jobs.
- skilled tradespeople who will face increased competition because of the oversupply of workers and diminishing demand for work.
- “people skilled” workers who will still have a vital role to play in an automated world.
- professionals who have people facing demands (mostly highly educated health professionals) and work in areas where the supply of workers is kept artificially low through strict training quotas.
- highly skilled intellectual workers who have mastered abstract cognitive enablers across contexts and situations The kind of thinking that is centuries away for AI.
- the highly skilled intellectual workers who have also acquired a high level of “people skills” that will enable them to rise to positions of leadership in the brave new cyber-assisted world of tomorrow.
The choice for each of us to make is which category will we strive to fit into.
Unfortunately, the final two types of workers rely on learning that has become almost non-existent. The acquisition of abstract cognitive enablers has all but disappeared from the skills available during the course of a normal university education. The universities vehemently deny this, but the research says otherwise. The abstract cognitive enabler that is commonly touted as being standard fare for a university graduate isn’t abstract and has been wrongly labelled for decades. Critical analysis (the skill being poorly taught) isn’t an abstract skill and it isn’t critical thinking.
Those who continue in their education through robust post-graduate training do acquire brilliant abstract cognitive enablers, but this acquisition is subject to the most pervasive problem in learning – transferability. Things that are learned within one context are rarely transferable to other contexts without consciously driven effort. Something that rarely takes place in the world of research centric academia.
And, what I mean by robust postgraduate training would exclude 90+ percent of all Master’s programs that are built on classrooms and research problems focussed on finding the “right” answers. Knowing where to look in order to find the right answer, which might involve critical analysis, and then parroting that back to a professor is not an abstract skill.
What we are now facing is amongst greatest transformations society has ever seen. This transformation is comparable to the introduction of gunpowder in warfare, the renaissance or enlightenment, the mechanisation of agriculture, the industrialisation of manufacturing, or the electronification of communications and processes. And this transformation was already thrusting itself on us faster than any previous societal upheaval. With Covid-19, the velocity of this change has just increased exponentially. How much money could the businesses that don’t rely on entities that get sick to deliver their goods or services have made in the last four months. The race for automation has just taken on new meaning.
I don’t believe that there can be an overabundance of people trained with abstract cognitive enablers. The age-of-reason enlightenment occurred because of the personal enlightenment that accompanies the acquisition of abstract cognitive enablers. We need people with these enablers that are available in any context now more than ever. We need another enlightenment to carry us through these tumultuous times.
We need hundreds of millions of enlightened minds working in a concerted effort to envision and realize a new society where everyone can find purpose and meaning. What will this look like? No one has any idea. We need the creativity that has changed the world in the past to be reintroduced into our society. Creativity that can’t be found when our massive higher (and lower) education sector is built on the premise of finding and memorizing what we already know and then regurgitating it for a teacher. We need to be finding answers to questions that we can’t even imagine asking right now.
The sad part is that we could be helping people acquire abstract cognitive enablers today. It isn’t that hard to accomplish and these enablers aren’t that hard to acquire. However, as a highly placed adviser to the education minister in an advanced western democracy recently said at a private dinner: “We don’t want masses of people to gain these skills. They are more difficult to control and manipulate, and they ask questions that we don’t want asked.”
We have the means, the motive, and the understanding to make the transformation to a brighter future. However, it remains to be seen whether or not we do it.