Change is coming, and it’s coming now.
Over the next decade, almost every job in Australia will face some kind of reformation. 40% of these – five million in all – will disappear completely, made wholly redundant or replaced by automated systems. To support these innovative systems. much of the new workforce will be comprised of experts in STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Mathematics) fields, but students in traditional schools aren’t being educated in preparation for these roles, a fact expected to result in a 25% gap between jobs that desperately need to be filled, and those qualified to fill them.
It all adds up to the kind of awe-inspiring overhaul not seen since the Industrial Revolution, nearly 250 years ago. People are scared – it’s easy to see why – but should they be?
The fear that mankind will be completely overtaken by machines dates back to the 1960s, and not just in sci-fi stories. Four decades earlier, Australian workers had transitioned from their historical positions in agriculture and were now prominently employed in manufacturing, where routine, manual labour was still the norm. Then the 60s came along, and so did ‘the robots’. They could do exactly the same job, only more efficiently, and they didn’t require a paycheque every week. Within 50 years, the industry went from hiring 28% of the national workforce to only 8%, with the figure continuing to trend down.
By the 70s, the white-collar sector had been impacted as well. The arrival of computers in the office space led one expert to declare “Jobs are going to be destroyed by a holocaust, a firestorm of technology,” to ABC’s Four Corners in 1978.
On the surface, it seemed he was right. Word processors completely eradicated the role of the typist. Yet it was the typist’s colleagues, not simply the word processors themselves, that led to their redundancy. The technology had become so streamlined that soon everyone was a typist. It was simple. It was efficient. And it was convenient.
Today, that same paranoia has manifested in the wake of advancements in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), and Virtual Intelligence (V.I.). The difference this time – an unsettling difference for some – is that these developments are focused on the entire automation of jobs, many in more complex, high-skilled areas than previously impacted.
One96 is an Australian company focused on helping workers reinvent themselves; a skill becoming increasingly more valuable in this era. Founder Susan Young believes the changes modern workers are facing, like those seen in the 60s and 70s, are not designed to break apart the workforce, but providing the kind of lateral flexibility that allows for new opportunities to arise.
“In an ideal world, the future of work is about providing career development programs and internal support so that workers can advance their skill-set and knowledge so that they become future proof and find ways to cross-collaborate in hybrid groups. Or become self-managed free agents who have adapted to new, flexible project work situations.”
A strong example of this is Opaque Media Group, an Australian company pioneering technological wonders akin to those that will play a defining role in the future workplace. The Opaque team are keenly aware that just because their industry is in its infancy does not make it exempt from the kinds of changes it is setting the foundations for.
“Opaque Media Group has always had an acute awareness of not just emerging industries but also the practices associated within them. We employ a workforce of individuals who are more so platforms of skills, knowledge and abilities rather than fit for a specific or defined task, often employed from a range of backgrounds with increasing emphasis on diversity and inclusivity,” said Emre Deniz. He’s the company Design Lead, but his skills and experience have seen him take on other roles, including publicity during Opaque’s appearances at the Game Developers Conference, and PAX Australia.
“Our workforce is every individual amplified and driven to perform multiple duties, which is why we often ‘punch above our weight’ internationally.”
He sees the shift not simply as a change in work, but a change in the meaning of work. One for the better. “We’ve become so interconnected that a traditional work timetable is too rigid, we’ve become so empowered that a career is more so defined by artefacts of work rather than how long we’ve done a particular task repetitively over a set period of time. This begins to shift away from our traditional notions of ‘roles’ in the workplace fundamentally.”
Yet Deniz admits this is not an entirely positive thing. He understands workers are scared for their future, and believes it’s important they are educated and prepared for what’s to come so that their confusion cannot be used against them. “I think that any fears of redundancy, eligibility and participation are valid, because of issues such as sexism, ageism, access to technology, education gaps and isolation of populations. There are already gender, socioeconomic and racial gaps in STEM fields… We need to address that access to technology, access to education and access to infrastructure…”
For Australian businesses and workers, this should be the ultimate concern.
In 1983, the NSW Department of Technical and Further Education released a study entitled An Analysis of the Australian Labour Market for Typists, Stenographers, and Secretaries. It found that the demand for typists had dropped consistently since the mid-60s. “This is reflected in high unemployment rates among those with typing qualifications, but not in any reduction in numbers in training.”
The issue wasn’t simply that typists couldn’t find any work, it was that they were continuing to develop and train as typists in a world that didn’t need them anymore.
Have we learnt our lesson? “No,” says Young, citing a 2013 Gallup study that found only 24% of employees were engaged with their jobs.
“(This) could be an early predictor of the fact that most businesses are not prepared for the change, nor have sufficient processes, systems and structure in place to evolve their current workforce rather than reduce, downsize and rebuild, which is often what happens in Australia.”
In September 2014, the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) launched an inquiry into whether young people were prepared for the new workforce they were set to enter after completing their education. Their primary focus was on digital literacy and STEM education, both of which will play an important part in Australia’s future. ABC’s Fact Check provided damning statistics on the latter, finding that the domestic rate for STEM graduations is 18%, far lower than many other nations.
Just as troubling is the realisation that students are still being prepared to become job seekers when entering the workforce, rather than job creators. With such an unpredictable future on the horizon, young Australians are not being equipped with the entrepreneurial skills required to devise their own opportunities.
The government is not faring much better, with funding cuts to innovation hubs like the CSIRO and universities coming even as Prime Minister Turnbull promises to deliver “jobs and growth”.
As happened in the Industrial Revolution, and with the introduction of computers in the 1960s, the future of work marks both an ending and beginning. It’s not as scary as some believe, nor will it bring about the ruination of everything employers and employees alike have worked so hard to create, provided they are prepared for what’s to come.
So how do we prepare? We will be exploring this question, and many more, in A Robot Stole My Job, one of our think tanks taking place at The 8 Percent Festival, October 10 – 12. Book your tickets now, and get ready for what the future has in store for us all.