The Future of Work: The Impact of Disruptive Technologies on Jobs and Skills

August 28, 2018

Marla is a fifty-eight-year-old native of Oakland, California, with three children and two grandchildren. Marla started her career as a secretary on a typewriter, processing letters, notes, and invoices. As computers made their way into mainstream society, she progressed to a clunky desktop, eventually a laptop, and now works for an artificial intelligence startup and finds her tablet indispensable. With retirement in view and more time to spend with her grandchildren, Marla keeps puzzling the future of her grandchildren: what is the future of work for them?

In 2018, 10-15 disruptive technologies sit on the horizon to usher in “Industry 4.0” or the fourth industrial revolution. As with those in previous centuries, it’s hard to imagine the future in a concrete sense: cities and towns, jobs, school, transport. It’s hard to imagine because there are so many disruptive technologies that individually and collectively will change the economy, society, jobs, and the workplace.

Disruptive Technologies

Renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen first wrote about disruptive technology and innovation in the 90s describing it as when one technology displaces an established technology and changes the nature or structure of an industry. Disruptive technologies tend to be new and aren’t incremental improvements on existing technologies. Fordham University professor, Milan Zeleny, went a step further to say that disruptive technologies must change the structure and organization, the architecture, of that which supports existing technology.

In short, disruptive technologies force companies to alter how they do business lest they become obsolete, sometimes quite quickly. Today, disruptive technologies include:

  • Autonomous vehicles — cars, drones, trucks
  • The Internet of Things
  • 3D printing
  • Renewable energy, energy storage
  • Advanced robotics with senses, dexterity, intelligence
  • Blockchain (and as of recently, hashgraph)
  • High-speed travel
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • Advanced materials
  • Gene editing
  • Spatial computing — augmented reality, virtual reality

What Does Tomorrow Look Like?

Most of us have heard of these technologies, but would struggle to have a discussion on what the implementation and implications of each technology looks like, let alone in combination. Partly the challenge is comprehending the impending changes and creating or analyzing the new relationships between humans, technology, society, business, and government.

Take for example 3D printing: imagine not going to a shop or ordering off Amazon. People will print most of their needs: houses, clothes, wood, utensils, cars, even Nutella. One city is printing a metal bridge. The future is so bright for 3D printing that printers could make organs, eyes, ears, or bones. As a result, humans could live healthier, longer, and the relationship of consumer to retail and producer may cut out most retail shops and change what cities and towns look like.

To go a step further with health, gene editing will help to eliminate diseases before birth or during early childhood. Gene editing will make crops heartier and more productive. Does this mean the end of cancer, epidemics, and world hunger? Will we even need robots to perform surgery? (Yes – humans are still human and accidents, falls, and emergencies will still happen.)

The agricultural industry has already experienced significant change, but imagine autonomous tractors, smart robots, and connected land and water surveillance: humans won’t need to pick fruits and vegetables, spray crops, or survey their fields by plane or helicopter.

Farmers and consumers will likely be less concerned about the potential pollution of their crops due to the increase in renewable energy use. Advances in renewable energy technology and changes in consumer preferences will eliminate fossil fuel use, gas-powered cars, and thus gas stations. Soon enough, electricity will be free.

If electricity is free, the internet is everywhere, and machines and devices have sensors, infrastructures and machines will be “smart,” the factory and city of the future will look quite different than what we know today. Warehouses and factories will be 99% machines with the occasional human. Machines will predict wear and tear and move to preventative maintenance: no more broken trains, buses, water pipes, etc. Groceries will be delivered and robots will have packed and shipped everything; the likes of Safeway and strip malls will be things of the past. Deliveries will be done by drones and USPS may not have the traditional mailman anymore. High-speed travel will make travelling from one city to another faster and easier: no more short-distance flights, airport hassle, or long road trips.

Impact on Jobs and Skills

Clearly, the world will be quite different. The city Marla grew up in won’t be the same city that her grandchildren grow up in, though they remain in Oakland. Hundreds have studied and tried to quantify disruptive technologies’ impact on jobs and the future of work: the breadth, depth, and scale of impact, which jobs will disappear and which will remain, how will the skillsets demanded change, etc. Overall, predictable physical work with repeated tasks, will be automated. Office support and administrative duties will be automated. Construction will likely need far fewer builders because machines will build. Jobs with customer interaction will shift, such as hotel and travel workers, food-service workers, retail workers, etc.

McKinsey predicts that in 60% of occupations, at least one-third of job duties could be automated. The World Economic Forum predicts an increase in freelance work to more than half the workforce. The OECD predicts that those in their teens will be the most at-risk for being put out of work by automation.

In 2018, we face a significant number of disruptive technologies that will, in accordance with their nature, disrupt life and the economy as we know it. Jobs will be automated out and will change in nature, but equally new jobs will be created that don’t yet exist today. Workers will need to be flexible, collaborate, be capable of digital navigation, handle high complexity, respond to a high number of requests or demands for attention and response, manage/filter signals and noise, and align themselves with work through skills-based not knowledge-based economies. Undoubtedly, there will be an increase in IT-related jobs, however they’re more likely to be in combination with other roles and industries as the lines blur, IoT pushes us to connect everything, thus technology and humans become ever closer.

It's not difficult to make some basic calculations about what skillsets will be needed in the future: automate predictable manual labor jobs and the skills demanded for such jobs decreases. More automated factories will increase the demand for hard skills in mechanical engineering, software architecture, coding, algorithms, data structures, data analysis/data science, and machine architecture/design. Increasing gene editing and robotic surgery will increase the demand for software engineers and mechanical engineers who also have medical skills. Move to IoT cities and policy makers and lawyers will need to understand coding, software architecture, economics, and more, on top of what they’re expected to know today.

Clearly with a rise of connected devices and infrastructure, machines, AI, spatial computing, blockchain, and autonomous vehicles, there comes an increase in demand for STEAM skills. However, sitting on top of hard skills is a deep and strong layer for cognitive, analytical, and soft skills. Employers won’t be looking for a degree that signifies what a candidate knows: they will be looking for someone who can learn, combine and analyze, problem-solve, create, and adjust. Employee value won’t be in how many hours they sat at a check-out as a cashier, how many coffees they served, cars they assembled, or accident-free bus routes they drove. It will be a question of how employees can add value to a company and to society in a world where predictable jobs will be mostly gone while unpredictability, complexity, and creativity dominate.

An increasingly connected environment demands an ability to comprehend a bigger picture, welcome greater complexities, and create and analyze intricate interdependent architecture: physical, intellectual, social, financial, and virtual. There will be a need for competency to understand and anticipate the impact of an intended manipulation or sudden change in architecture or complexity. What are the skills required to figure out the impact of an electricity grid outage on a city that depends on being interconnected via the internet (li-fi, not wi-fi)?

As our economy, society, and workplaces change, undoubtedly there are some core skills that will be central to the future work population. People will need to learn how to learn and essentially become life-long learners. As things become connected, technologies change, and cities re-shape, people will need to learn new ways of doing things: that is exactly the nature of disruptive technologies. At a point in time when multiple disruptive technologies are coming together simultaneously, society is poised for significant change and thus significant re-learning. With that, workers need flexibility to adapt as workplaces, companies, economies, and cities change. How will people respond to their jobs being 30-100% replaced by a machine or new software? Will they adapt, learn new skills and continue in the workforce? Will people be bitter towards a robot when a robot takes over a particular aspect of their job they once enjoyed? Will there be a need for human-robot conflict resolution? Realistically, humans will work alongside robots, thus workers will have to adapt to changes in their own jobs.

Not all skills can be calculated as easily as those in STEAM. Gene editing combined with automation and robotic surgery poses an interesting question about demand for healthcare and medical skills: will the demand for healthcare skills go up or down? If there’s more food, healthier people, better surgery, better diagnosis, and less disease, people will live longer. A larger elderly population increases the demand for healthcare services and the relating skillsets, but will advances in technology have a balancing effect such that there will be little change to the demand for healthcare-related skills? Time will tell: expect better predictions as more data is collected and analyzed.

Impact in Reality

In reality, we don’t know what the future will hold because we can’t predict it. While we can try to predict what technologies will be able to do and how they could affect jobs, the reality is that the extent and speed of the impact is a function of business adoption, government, and education (and thus a function of human decisions that aren’t always 100% rational). As a Canadian study by the National Institute of Scientific Research pointed out, the impact of disruptive technologies will depend on choices executed by public and private companies to use automation or not. Companies will likely prioritize automation that improves productivity because it’s in their best interest to do so. Deloitte points out that most C-suite execs aren’t ready for the coming disruption and its impact on their companies and workforce. Further, most businesses today that center around disruptive technologies use a different business model, therefore if companies today aren’t ready to adopt new business models, then their adoption of disruptive technologies will be stagnated.

Business is of course governed, thus if policy makers and the government aren’t ready to adopt disruptive technologies and new ways of doing things or running cities, then disruptive technology adoption will be further hindered.

Finally, as we already know today, if education can’t keep up with changing industry, then the skills gap will hinder technological advancement and adoption. Are students learning how to learn, handle high complexity, and be flexible or are they being fed information and told to memorize? Are they developing high social cognition and using cognitive enhancement tools to accomplish complex tasks? Are they learning how to make the invisible visible and how to make good decisions using data and analysis? Further, on a macro scale, are educational systems structurally ready to re-skill millions of people? Are there solutions that don’t cost an arm and a leg and last four years when the industry needs a software engineer who is also a psychologist to create a product that detects the mood of drivers and auto-shuts off the car appropriately?

If the impact of disruptive technologies depends on education, business leaders, and policy makers, perhaps Marla would be wise to educate her children and grandchildren with future-focused hard skills and soft skills, and the mindset to adapt and pivot.

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