Dead Medium Essay: Are Jobs Dead?

Countless conversations start off with the standard question ‘So, what do you do?’ For some people, work is what they do for sustenance. For others, it’s about whiling away time. For others still, it is what brings meaning and purpose to life. However we choose to define it, each one of us has work to do. Today, where we cannot imagine a life without technology and connectivity, does the nature of the work we do stand to change as well? In a one-of-a-kind analysis of socio-economic structures, e-learning expert Atul Pant explores how far automation and the age of artificial intelligence have, and may continue to, affect the nature of work. Will work have the same significance for the coming generations? Will they have to invent new jobs for a new economy? Well, there may just be no straight answers.


Learning from History

Humans have always tried to augment our muscle power to accomplish more – whether it was through the invention of tools, domesticating animals or harnessing the power of steam to do our heavy lifting. This change was primarily brought in by the First Industrial Revolution, which changed the nature of work from agricultural to factory-based. In order to create disciplined, factory-fit workers mass education was introduced. Farmers, who learnt new skills, or those who mechanised their farms, were the ones who thrived.

The discovery of electricity created the second wave of industrialization and led to automation and mass production. The third Industrial Revolution, which was driven by improvements in IT and computing performance, led to a knowledge explosion. Knowledge that was until now stored and disseminated via printed books, magazines and journals, and was thus expensive, could now be consumed and shared in cheaper digital forms. To thrive in the knowledge economy, specialization in a domain became essential. Thus, in the 19th and 20th centuries, you could potentially be guaranteed lifelong employment because of deep knowledge of a particular discipline, perhaps in the form of a University degree.


The future, as they say, is VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.


Towards the end of the 20th century, computers became even more powerful and affordable. A mobile phone now had more computing power than the erstwhile mainframe computers. Machines that had so far replaced or augmented human brawn, now started supplementing the human brain. Jobs that involved cognitive skills were the few considered secure because machines were incapable of performing them. Human beings thus lost their monopoly over many logical, analytical and reasoning tasks. Yet, complicated cognitive tasks still belonged to the human realm, safe from the purview of machines. Once again, the mass worldview of what a ‘good job’ was, had changed. If you are looking for constants, perhaps this was it – the changing nature of livelihoods.

Today, if a job can be reduced to an algorithm, you can be assured that it will be. Perhaps soon, intelligent machines will take over jobs that are currently monopolized by humans. To flourish in times that are fast changing, history tells us you need to constantly reinvent yourself.

Technology Convergence

Imagine, you are heating water and a young child is looking at the thermometer. As the water heats up the mercury rises: 30°C, 40°C, 50°C, 80°C. You ask the child what she thinks will happen next? As a first-time observer, she might say that the water will keep getting hotter and hotter. She cannot imagine, or guess, that at 100°C water will turn into steam – a Phase Change, when the state of matter changes and liquid becomes gas. In the unfolding future, we are like this little girl who simply cannot guess what will happen next.

The future, as they say, is VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Technologies are now converging by bringing together the physical, the digital and the biological. This is being called the 4th Industrial Revolution by some. Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of things, autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, 3D printing, big data, nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetically modified food, are reshaping the world. These technologies are not only changing production but also all other aspects of our life – including what it means to be a human. Homo Sapiens 2.0 may not evolve from a gene-based evolution but from advances in technology that will fuse carbon and silicon atoms. Such a concept of ‘enhanced humans’ may be closer to reality than we believe.


Also read: Papercuts Volume 18 Dead Medium, guest-edited by spec-fic author Anil Menon.


What does this imply for well-paying employability? What kind of jobs, if any, will exist in the future? What skills will be required to remain employable?

Vending machines, ATMs, self-check-in kiosks at the airports, self-service kiosks for placing orders at McDonald’s, artificially intelligent machines analyzing X-ray images better than qualified radiologists, paralegals being replaced by computers, driverless cars and 30,000 Kiva bots that automate the Amazon warehouses – all of this when the 4th Industrial Revolution is in its infancy!

Will technology kill all the jobs?

Drone operator, e-sports commentator, social media reporter, content curator, 3D fabricator, virtual reality designer, big data analyst, citizen scientist, sustainable energy innovator, block chain auditor, internet of things strategist, space tourist guide, robot serviceman, crypto-currency trader – will technology create plenty of new and creative jobs?

Shaping the Future

The Luddites were a group of skilled weavers and textile workers in England in the 19th Century, during the First Industrial Revolution. They destroyed weaving machines as a form of protest, fearing that they would be replaced by unskilled labour that did not have to learn the craft but simply knew how to operate a steam-powered loom.

Perhaps the taxi drivers in London, who protest against the Uber drivers, are like 19th Century Luddites. London cabbies have to pass a test called ‘The Knowledge’. It requires very stringent training that has been described as ‘having an atlas of London implanted into your brain’. All you need to become an Uber driver is, to have access to a car, have a driving license, and a satnav.

The Luddites’ attempt to destroy machinery to halt the progress of technology was a vain attempt and the movement was brutally suppressed with military force. Even with the absence of any such suppression, the protesting London cabbies will probably not be able to halt the march of technology and its effect on the economy. For the Luddites, it turned out that the steam-powered looms led to unskilled labour replacing experienced weavers initially, but further advancement created mechanized assembly lines that required skilled labour of a different nature. Historical evidence thus shows that while technological innovation destroys jobs in the short-term, it creates more new jobs in the long run. This time, however, analysts say that the future is different. The velocity of change is unprecedented, and that too across several domains of technology.


What we are likely to see is a ‘job polarization’ or the ‘hollowing out effect’. The low-skilled, low-paying jobs and the high-skilled, high-paying jobs will most likely remain, although in a different form, but the existing middle-tier jobs may disappear.


In his book ‘Rise of the Robots’, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford observes that AI machines that are capable of learning and improving their performance on their own have made many jobs obsolete. If this is not bad enough, he adds that household costs will explode, especially for education and healthcare, and this will lead to massive unemployment and inequality. A study done in 2013 by Oxford University estimates that nearly half the existing jobs in the US (47%), and around 35% of those in the UK are at risk of being automated in the next 10 to 20 years.

The London cabbies can perhaps take solace in the fact that technology may soon create problems for the Uber drivers as well. In Singapore, for instance, an experiment is currently underway for driverless taxis, which if successful, will make both London cabbies and Uber drivers redundant.

Will automation extinguish jobs in economies that are slower to join the technology race as well?

Take India, for example, where over 90% of the population is either self-employed or works in the unorganized sector. According to data collected in 2010, of the 460 million employed people in India: 50% work in the agricultural sector, 11% in manufacturing and 25% in the services sector. Will the rise of the robots and AI have the same impact in India as in the US? How will it impact those employed in agriculture? Will the rising tide of online shopping and automated point-of-purchase lead to massive unemployment in the retail sector?

If yes, the problems for India may stand to exacerbate given that two-thirds of the population is 35 or younger and a million Indians celebrate their 18th birthday every month, eagerly seeking employment. If there are no jobs for them, what kind of social unrest does India stand to face? Is the massive base of a young population in India a demographic dividend or a time-bomb?

Jobs are not Dead, but Evolving

Fortunately, it would seem that jobs are not dying, as much as they are evolving, or you could say metamorphosing. What we are likely to see is a ‘job polarization’ or the ‘hollowing out effect’. The low-skilled, low-paying jobs and the high-skilled, high-paying jobs will most likely remain, although in a different form, but the existing middle-tier jobs may disappear.

Oxford researchers, Frey and Osborne, consider manual dexterity, high cognitive skills and social skills as the three ‘bottlenecks’ to computerization. Those who hone these skills will be much sought after in the existing job market. Manual dexterity, such as that of master craftsmen and artisans, could be replaced in the future by nano-machines that are fast becoming capable of fine dexterity. However, a market for human craftsmanship may still remain vibrant, just through a different avenue – such as online marketplaces like Etsy.


Employment roles that encourage introspection and meditation will also witness a rising demand.


While administrative jobs that involve routine rule-based work have a very high probability of being replaced by intelligent machines, caring and leisure occupations have a lower probability of being replaced by computerization. In most developed countries, for instance, the population is greying and this ageing population will need looking after. AI technology may make medical diagnostics very accurate and surgery very precise, but doctors will need to be even more empathetic with their patients. Caring and empathy will be thus be two skills in great demand for the future.

With the rise of virtual and augmented reality, the need for authentic experiences will also rise – leading to more jobs in the hospitality and fitness industry. Employment roles that encourage introspection and meditation will also witness a rising demand.

Many of the problems the world faces today – climate change, terrorism, energy crisis, paucity of safe drinking water, rising global population – are complex issues. Hence, complex problem-solving skills, especially skills to solve such problems by combining human and machine intelligence (computational thinking) will be a hugely sought after skill.

The new high-paying jobs that are being created will be knowledge and talent intensive. For example with home automation, sensors controlling cold, heat, light and many gadgets and gizmos inside a house (the Internet of Things), even a construction worker will need to know some level of electronics. A cook who not only cooks for taste, but also understands fitness and cooks for an overall healthy lifestyle will be better remunerated. Car designers will need to know about computers and data analytics given the level of computing that resides in the engine of a car today. This will only grow as vehicles become driverless and autonomous and generate vast amounts of data that can be analyzed to further improve the vehicle’s performance. Combining human and machine intelligence, ability to glean insights from information, decipher patterns, and connecting the dots between two seemingly unrelated domains will be abilities that will have a sharply rising demand curve.


Artificially Intelligent machines are slowly demonstrating that consciousness and intelligence can be decoupled, and most jobs only need intelligence.


But a few knowledge-rich jobs, in the medical, legal, financial or other domains, are also being transformed by machine intelligence. Artificially Intelligent machines are slowly demonstrating that consciousness and intelligence can be decoupled, and most jobs only need intelligence[1]. Machines have had better brawn for quite a while, and now that they have all the five senses, their brains are also becoming better, even if not conscious. In the foreseeable future, the ability to combine human and machine intelligence to produce innovative and scalable solutions for complex problems, augurs well for both, employability and entrepreneurship.

ADAPTING TO THE NEW ECONOMIC CONTOURS

‘Inventing’ your Job

Employability in the new age incorporates a deliberate sense of ‘Learning to Be’ – i.e. the ability to live joyfully, meaningfully and purposefully. This is opposed to the idea of working only to earn some money. It implies a deep sense of self-awareness that makes you realise that the tides of life are not in your hands, only your own boat is. Thus, be aware of the script that plays inside your head and interprets the life situations you face as they unfold. To quite an extent, this determines your happiness.

Jobs will no longer remain location or time-based as the world moves towards flexible hours instead of 9 am to 5 pm work. Contractual and freelance work will grow. And, you will probably never retire. In fact, you will work for a long time. Better living conditions and improvement in medicine is elongating our life span. This implies we will have a longer life and hence a longer working life.

This emerging freelance, on-demand economy is being called the ‘Gig’ economy. The word ‘gig’ as used in this context has been borrowed from the music industry. Musicians do not have full-time jobs but live from one performance to another. The performances they do are called gigs. This project-based way of working may soon be the new norm for the future of work in the Gig Economy.


Employability in the new age incorporates a deliberate sense of ‘Learning to Be’ – i.e. the ability to live joyfully, meaningfully and purposefully. This is opposed to the idea of working only to earn some money.


The old maxim has us believing that you must make some money first and then do what you are passionate about. The Gig Economy gives you an opportunity to do what you find exciting and also make money. If you are talented then you can find the means to live a flexible life. A life where you work hard and play hard. With more time for leisure, you could travel, develop a hobby, or spend more time with your family.

Earlier self-employed individuals and micro-enterprises could only cater to the local demand because they did not have the funds to market their offerings and their market was very fragmented. They relied on word-of-mouth publicity and middlemen. The middlemen could also exploit the uninformed self-employed people, such as artisans. But today a self-employed individual or micro-enterprise can market their talent globally using an online platform, because here, you are your own brand.

The Gig Economy has thus opened wide the field of entrepreneurship. If you have a unique idea and can take risks, then you can even think of starting your own entrepreneurial venture. If there is a niche product or service with a fragmented demand, you can aggregate its buyers and sellers on your own. You can virtually even create demand where there was none. In this climate, the ‘risk takers are profit makers’.

So if you’re a ‘maker’, you can sell your exquisite handmade crafts on Etsy. If you are an artist, designer, or an animator, you can get freelance work from across the globe on Fiverr. If you are good at computer programming then you can find projects on Upwork. If making films is your passion, you can find buyers on 90 Seconds. If you have a magical voice, you can find freelance voiceover work on Voice123. Additionally, the recognition you get by winning such a reward is an added benefit because in today’s world recognition has become the way of increasing your monetary worth.

Today, the Internet gives you the opportunity to keep improving your set of skills, at a very low cost. You can watch videos made by experts, read blogs, take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), listen to podcasts, use apps and connect with Communities of Practice using social media.

Besides flexibility and autonomy, the current economy also offers you a chance to acquire mastery in what you love doing. Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three drivers of intrinsic motivation. The Gig Economy offers you a chance to fulfill these three objectives like never before.

But there is a dark side. There is no fixed income and no guarantee what you will earn from one month to the next. Income volatility also means that you may find making future plans difficult. For instance, you may need a bank loan and without a proof of salary, banks will be hesitant, to say the least, to give you one. Professional benefits such as medical insurance, maternity or paternity leaves are also not for the taking, and you are definitely not getting any pension. This may be the price you pay to enjoy the advantages of the Gig Economy.

You will have to consider how talented you are, how much confidence you have in your talent, what is your financial position, what is your risk appetite and what is your life situation. Whatever your case, today you have more choices to go through. You could go after a government job – which may seem secure but is part of a fast-shrinking, reservations-based market. You could take the safe road and seek employment in a private company, or a multinational. Or you could go all out and live as a freelancer. You could even work out the right mix for yourself – three-days-a-week work in a private company, and two days freelance.

Richard Riley, Education Secretary in President Bill Clinton’s administration, famously said, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” If it was true a decade ago, it is certainly our reality now. How do you prepare for a future like that? Perhaps the answer to that is in asking yourself how will you measure your life?

 

[1] Author Yuval Harari has written extensively about this, he explains that the invention of algorithms makes cognitive tasks easier for machines, going as far as to govern decision making in our lives.

 


After two decades in the e-learning industry, ten of them with a company he co-founded in Singapore, Atul Pant now runs an educational charity, Timeless Lifeskills (TLS), based out of London. For the past five years, he has been working with students in rural and remote areas in India, helping them learn life skills essential for success and wellbeing in the 21st-century in fun and innovative ways. Atul is an avid blogger and has also authored two books as well as running two YouTube channels on life skills, one in English and one in Hindi.

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