Last week, more than 2,000 leaders from business and politics gathered at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting to discuss the Earth’s most pressing issues.
Top of this year’s agenda is WEF’s report on The Future of Jobs introducing the idea of the coming “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
A Fourth Industrial Revolution
With the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – a term coined by World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab – developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and nanotechnology are predicted to seriously disrupt the jobs market as we know it.
The Future of Jobs suggests that between now and 2020, a combination of job creation, job displacement, heightened labour productivity, and widening skills gaps are likely to result in a net loss of 5.1 million jobs.
The majority of losses are predicted to be in routine white collar office functions, manufacturing and production roles, with significant job creation in computing, mathematical and engineering related fields.
A polarised debate around what such disruptions might mean has been gathering momentum in recent years, simultaneously predicting utopia and catastrophe.
At one pole is Uber CEO, Travis Kalanik, who predicts limitless opportunities in yet to be conceived job markets, and greater productivity “freeing up” workers from routine toil.
At the other pole, Stephen Hawking has warned of an explosion in inequality and undermining of democracy, which will reduce the majority to lives of misery.
This camp says tech pioneers, investors in new technologies, certain scientists and certain nations will benefit, while workers, people and nations already partially excluded from the global economy, and potentially even the middle classes in richer nations, will lose out.
Whichever camp you fall into, it’s clear that the outcome will be determined by actions taken now.
Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the common good
The authors of The Future of Jobs echo the advice of MIT-based academics, Brynjolfsson and McAfee – that lifetime learning and continued training and retraining are key – including government intervention to support these changes: an action plan which President Obama alluded to in his State of the Union Address earlier this month.
Meanwhile, others have identified this as an opportunity for more systemic change that could take us closer to a new economic system in which everyone’s needs are provided for within planetary boundaries.
An array of interesting suggestions have been made to date, including provision of a Basic Income Guarantee or Universal Basic Income, or transition to a post-capitalist global society involving liberation from work.
If predictions about disruption to the employment landscape are correct, exploring the viability of such options isn’t just a political imperative – it could also be in the economic interests of those who stand to benefit most from the predicted changes.
After all, without a class of consumers able to purchase products, those who own the technology could find themselves without customers and therefore without an income.
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