In 2018 the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney delivered a sobering speech about the outlook for workers in this fourth industrial revolution currently underway as technology and robotisation redefine business and employment.
Carney said it might be decades before jobs and wages growth flow back to displaced workers. He also says worker displacement and low wage growth are likely to remain entrenched and that, “a fundamental challenge is that, while technological revolutions ultimately drive great improvements in prosperity, they first involve painful periods of adjustment. It takes time for new jobs to be created to replace those made obsolete.”
It’s a disturbing outlook, but one that Andrew Scott, professor of Economics at London Business School, suggested may be a little too apocalyptic. “This is exactly what was said at times of technological disruption in the past, and yet new jobs – jobs no-one dreamt of at the time – were created. There are some areas where human beings will always have a comparative advantage over computers, no matter how powerful those computers are. Don’t write off the human race just yet,” he noted in research released in 2018.
That is a theory Professor Simon Wilkie, Head of Monash Business School and Dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics, seems to have great sympathy with. Wilkie, who was at the coal face of digital disruption when he worked as chief economic policy strategist at Microsoft Corporation, had a video conversation with his colleague from the Monash Business Centre, Professor Richard Hall who runs the University’s Impact Exchange.
Wilkie seemed to agree with Carney that we are currently in a period of transition, and while he didn’t put a timeframe on this transition itself, he appeared more sanguine in his view of what the outcome will be for workers, with a much more positive take of where they end up.
He said the fourth industrial revolution was delivering what he called “ubiquitous ambient intelligent”.That’s an academic’s way of saying technology was allowing more people access to highly specialised skills and information that were hitherto only available to the wealthy and connected. In this way, he said we are witnessing a democratisation of “intelligence by making it cheaper and easier to access”.
That begs the question – the point BoE’s Carney was making – of what that ubiquitous intelligence is doing to workers and their jobs.
Like London Business School’s Andrew Scott, Wilkie says that as some jobs are destroyed, new ones are created. Hall pressed him on the transition and Wilkie noted that there were lots of low-value service jobs being created. But equally, he stressed there would be higher-paid, higher-skilled jobs. And not just people who write code. Rather, he said, we will see the rise of complementary jobs and for these people, “the future is very bright”.
And he said the compliment to AI is emotional intelligence – our very humanness.
“What we are seeing paradoxically is that soft skills, which are often overlooked, are going to be more valuable,” Professor Wilkie says. And he says that these complementary skills, this human side, is going to be a much bigger part of the economy. He also said that these jobs would be much more rewarding for workers because it would allow them to get away from rote, mechanical tasks (even if they are intellectually mechanical), into jobs where workers “get to express themselves as a human”.
He believes that there will be more importance placed on this humanity and connection as well as a growing “importance put on creativity,” which in turn means workers will be able to move into roles where they “find more fulfilment and self-expression in their job”.
From Carney’s dystopia to what sounds like Wilkie’s utopia.
But we are still in transition, Wilkie says. But it is a transition which will ultimately open up a period of deep and sustained growth like the period from 1900 to 1980, which saw a reduction in inequality and a deepening of wealth distribution.
Part of the trade-off is life long education rather than just a fixed period at the beginning of our lives, Wilkie says. But this commitment to education from workers, from companies, and from corporate, political, and educational leaders, is ultimately the fuel which will power the next stage of the transition in this fourth industrial revolution.
The pay will be worth it, Wilkie says.
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