In 1900, 50% of global workers were employed as farmworkers. Today that number is 2%. So why is there no global jobs crisis and how do we have almost full employment in the UK? Because our jobs have evolved as the economy, industry and culture have done likewise. Industrial revolutions might be disruptive but human beings are notoriously resilient creatures that are always changing and adapting to their shifting environments.
The digital revolution is arguably one of the most profound of the last thousand years and AI sits poised at the tip of that revolution like a sharpened arrow waiting to tear through the technological antiquation. There’s no doubt about it, the next few years are going to be disruptive, but enterprises shouldn’t look ahead with fear; they should be looking ahead with ambition.
It's going to be disruptive
Like all industrial revolutions, in the long run, the digital workforce will benefit the wider world tremendously – but in the short term, it’s going to be tough for those businesses not willing to put in the groundwork.
The OECD worked with Oxford Economics to predict where automation is likely to have the most impact and how displaced staff could move to adjacent roles. They predict that 5% of the workforce will need to be retrained over the next 10 years.
That’s an enormous task for organisations, educational bodies and governments. It’s also at odds with our current educational model, which ‘front-loads’ our early lives with education and then leaves us to fend for ourselves during a lifelong career of work. The disruption caused by forcing people who might have been working in a job for their entire lives to retrain for a role they might not be immediately equipped to fulfil could be incredibly stressful and will undoubtedly lead to societal and political turmoil if not handled delicately.
Indeed, how this transition is handled is perhaps the most important thing to consider here and our role as leaders is to anticipate trends and prepare our organisations and people as best we can. It’s certainly not impossible. The older ‘baby boomer’ workforce will be retiring soon, of course, but even those that are choosing to carry on in work (or are unfortunately forced to, due to financial circumstances) are more switched on. Add the fact that by 2025, 75% of the workforce will consider themselves digital natives and it’s a task that doesn’t seem quite so insurmountable.
The most tangible proof that it’s possible to survive and thrive amidst such disruption, however, can be found by putting a spotlight on the innovators who have already invested their resources in AI and robotics. These are the companies that saw which way the tides were turning years ago and acted accordingly. You could do a lot worse than following their example. At least, to a degree.
The great Amazonian innovator
When it comes to utilising digital workers to reduce costs and improve efficiency, Amazon is arguably leagues ahead of the competition, though their workers have certainly paid the price for that innovation. The tech and retail giant spent $775 million on a young robotics company called Kiva Systems back in 2012 that allowed it to lay the foundation on which it would build its warehouse robotics team.
Earlier in 2019, the company rolled out these machines that are capable of automatically boxing up and shipping customer orders; a job traditionally only humans were capable of. There are now over 200,000 mobile robots working within its warehouse network; a move which has had a seismic impact on the historically old-fashioned warehouse industry.
These robots, however, have resulted in widespread condemnation from a workforce that was already unhappy after being pushed to breaking point, some being forced to walk up to 12 miles a day. Indeed, many have complained that the robots have actually increased the risk of serious injury. And this is before we even mention the fleet of Amazon delivery drones that are set to make a widespread launch this year.
So, Amazon represents both a cautionary tale and a litmus test for those smaller businesses looking to invest in the digital workforce. By no means are we dissuading companies from investing in digital and robotic workers, but they should do so whilst also considering their human workforce. If Amazon had heeded these words they wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of such damningly negative press.
Reinvesting the savings
“How Robots Change The World" by Oxford Economics suggests that “boosting robot installations to 30% above the baseline forecast by 2030 would lead to an estimated 5.3% boost in global GDP that year.” This equates to adding an extra $4.9 trillion per year to the global economy by 2030; some serious savings indeed! For many workers, it also means less work and more free time and how do we as a society manage that extra time?
Fewer workdays or a shorter working week perhaps? Even then, what do we do with the rest of our time? More creativity, more entrepreneurship, more education, more sport, more family time - or just more entertainment? We are still many years away from having to face this quandary head-on, of course, but US Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang has proposed a Freedom Dividend; a universal basic income linked to societal contribution as opposed to work. A radical proposal, perhaps, but we’re certain other creative proposals will follow in the coming years.
Catalysing positive change
With 87% of the US workforce wiling to resell alongside a digital workforce, the workers themselves are obviously aware that change is coming and they are ready and willing to accept automation. Now it’s up to their employers to ensure that the process is as painless and as positive as possible for everyone involved.