A mandate for responding to the uncertain future of work

10 February

By Jon Williams, People and Organisation Partner, excerpts of this article appeared in the Australian Financial Review -  6 February 2017 

This week’s formalisation of the date when Toyota will join General Motors Holden and Ford by closing its manufacturing plant in Australia has added to the shrill voices of alarm being raised in the debate about the future of work.

Add this to the growing realisation that jobs that were once offshored cannot now be returned because they are no longer performed by humans, the debate about the need for a living wage to prop up the unemployable in a newly roboticised world, and the call for a rapid retraining of the population so that we can all program this new world into creation (even though this type of work is amongst that most at risk from the machines themselves) and a dark picture is easily imagined.

The debate has been led from three corners.

Those in the thick of the emerging technology, computer scientists and technologists, paint a bleak future where the number of jobs or tasks being taken by the machines cannot possibly be replaced by new jobs and the only solution is to tax the machines to prop up the ailing populace. If the Toyota closure is merely a presage for a white collar repeat of the same phenomenon, as they argue, then there is nowhere for all the existing white collar workers to go.

On the other side, psychologists and human behaviour scientists take a more constructive view that people can and will adapt, lifestyles will change and “we will find a way”. In this view the speed of technology change is less interesting than the way that individuals and society choose to respond to and resist it, adopting some changes rapidly whilst skipping others. Time will tell which technologies lead to meaningful workplace change and which ones fail to make an impact, but we will consciously or unconsciously lead the process.

The third group are the historians, who largely distance themselves from the specifics of this current technology change to say that similar events have happened in the past and – as we can see by the current relatively high levels of employment globally – have self-evidently always worked themselves out, in the end.

So, if we don’t know which of these viewpoints will prevail and if, in reality, it is likely to be a combination of each of them playing out over a number of timeframes what should we do now to prepare ourselves for the changes which are inevitable and the ones which are likely?

In my view this question needs to be addressed at three levels: society and government; organisations that employ people; and individuals themselves.

At a government level we need to start a debate about how the education system serves us. In particular the cramming of education largely into the early years of increasingly long lives makes no sense. With a shifting work landscape and skill demands, we must seriously embrace lifelong learning. Secondly, there needs to be a conversation about our taxation model. If we move the means of value creation in organisations from humans to machines what happens to our income tax base and how will we fund the retraining and transition of our existing working population? Finally, retirement savings need to be looked at again as we re-evaluate the length of an individual’s working life and the notion of fluctuating rather than steadily increasing incomes as jobs and careers change.

As a society we also have issues to address. Our high levels of home ownership and the mortgage burden that comes with that are a barrier to career change and re-skilling, people simply cannot afford to step off the current career treadmill to re-train for something different. We also need to think collectively about the jobs and skills that we value highly, many of which machines will likely replace. The cognitive complexity of the lawyer and accountant is easily coded, the empathy of the aged care worker or the innovation of the designer much less so – will we change our societal model of income distribution?

Organisations also need to think about this and will have choices to make as machines inevitably replace some humans tasks. Do they simply take the efficiency dividend and release the people that machines have made redundant or do they keep them and tap into their much more human skills of intuition, empathy, innovation and creativity to provide even better products and services? And what kinds of leaders will organisations need in this new world - a model of dispersed rather than centralised leadership is likely to emerge.

And individuals, actual human beings – what do we need to do to thrive and prosper in whatever new work world eventuates? The secret for a bright future seems to me to lie in flexibility and in the ability to reinvent oneself. If you believe that the future lies in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills and that interests you, train for that. But be prepared to rethink if it turns out the world doesn’t need so many programmers. If you are a great accountant who has prospered by building strong client relationships, think how you can apply that capability, without necessarily having to be an accountant. Think about yourself as a bundle of skills and capabilities, not a defined role or profession.

The future of work is decidedly uncertain. Whichever viewpoint proves most accurate – dystopian, humanist or historical – they all involve a significant degree of change.

Personally, I choose to believe in the middle route. Humanity will find a way, as it has in the past, to create a new model, a new world, where people find meaningful ways to contribute to society and create purpose in their own lives by doing so. However, this will not come without some transitional pain to many individuals, organisation and indeed society at large. This pain will be shorter, and less deeply felt, if we take actions now to prepare ourselves to shift what we believe and what we do more rapidly than we will if we just leave the next ten years to chance. The goal cannot be to resist or defeat the machines, it must be to adapt so that by living and working alongside them we create a better future for all humanity.

 

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