The future of work during an era of disruptive process and technological change: Reflections on a debate held at the University of Birmingham Dubai

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The acceleration in the pace and reach of process and technological innovations presents a challenge for parents, their children and for all students – for all those at the start of their journey within the labour market.”  

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Futures matter. But the future is the future and not the now. We are living with uncertainty – uncertain lives, uncertain futures. Capitalism is an evolving system of value creation. Central to capitalism is a process that transforms inputs in to new forms of value. This transformation process includes the transformation of raw materials in to aspirational products or services, but it also includes another process of transformation. This second process destroys jobs and creates jobs – it transforms the future of work. 

The second process includes the replacement of variable costs, meaning people – workers, in production processes with machines – simple machines or much more complex computers and their algorithms. This has always been the case. Part of this process includes acceleration – the speeding up of the production of value by the application of new process and technological developments. The pace of change, the pace of job destruction and creation, defines this period of process and technological disruption in the labour market from other periods.  We have seen nothing like this before. One of our panellists Tom Urquhart, radio and television presenter provided an excellent example of this pace of acceleration. Thus, it took the telephone 75 years to obtain 50 million subscribers, television 13 years, the internet 4 years, Facebook 2 years, YouTube 10 months and Angry Birds 35 days(1).

The acceleration in the pace and reach of process and technological innovations presents a challenge for parents, their children and for all students – for all those at the start of their journey within the labour market. There are important questions to address including ‘which jobs and tasks will be destroyed and replaced by machines?’ and ‘how to manage the development of a career that might need to last for nearly five decades?’ It is important to remember that no one can predict the future. The only prediction that can be made is that the future is uncertain and that it is in a process of becoming. 

Two important points emerged from the discussion at the University of Birmingham Dubai. First, the nature of work is changing. There are many aspects to these changes. These include a shift towards self-employment and freelance work, but it also includes the emergence of born global firms. For some, self-employment is considered to be problematic. This might be associated with the gig economy, but for others self-employment provides flexibility as workers can balance their livelihoods with liveability. The emergence of born global firms highlights the role that web-based platforms and the internet have played in enabling the establishment of smaller firms that are able to transact business in many countries. New technology provides new opportunities to create value by creating new forms of work and new forms of firms.  

Second, there is perhaps only one way of coping with an uncertain future. This is to take control of your own career and construct your own future.  Panellist Ghada Othman provided a checklist for future proofing a career – be bold, own the journey, keep evolving and developing, make a positive impact and enjoy the journey – have fun. Tom, highlighted the importance of listening, learning and doing. All this is excellent advice. Those entering the labour market, or self-employment, should reflect on the radical alterations that are currently transforming labour markets. These alterations include the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to work. There are activities that are currently protected from any erosion by the application of AI. These include tasks with high levels of unpredictability that cannot be tackled by machine learning, tasks that rely on reading emotions and on social skills, creative activities of all sorts, the skills to create and maintain automated systems and work that is based on the development of reputations(2).

What does this mean for those at secondary school and in higher education? On the one hand, we are living in challenging times. But, this has always been the case. On the other hand, the primary drivers of success in the worlds of work and everyday living have not altered. These include acquiring appropriate skill sets, developing an appropriate attitude to work, developing and maintaining your reputation and engaging with people. In an uncertain future, you can make your own destiny.

References:

  1. See http://blog.interactiveschools.com/blog/50-million-users-how-long-does-it-take-tech-to-reach-this-milestone, accessed 1 October 2018 
  2. Bryson, J.R. (2018), ‘Divisions of Labour, Technology and the Transformation of Work: Worker to Robot or Self-Employment and the Gig Economy’, in Paasi, A., Harrison, J. and Jones, M. (eds.), Handbook on the Geographies of Regions and Territories, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham: 141-152.

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