Working Ahead: Considering the Future of Employment

By Hanane Benkhallouk

Even the most optimistic innovator views the future with caution, though she might not admit it. The path ahead promises innovation in technology and society alike, welcoming in often-irreversible shifts to our social landscapes. This unformed potential for change thrills, energizes, and empowers those of us seeking progress – and yet, the onward march towards innovation also comes paired with a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. Today, working individuals across the globe look nervously towards the future, wondering if those same thrilling advances in technology will render their labor moot in fifty, twenty, or even five years. Theirs is a valid and timely concern – but I would argue that the future of automation is not necessarily one that we should shy away from. After all, we have been at these crossroads before.

I invite you to delve back into the past, towards early decades of the 20th century. In those days, a trip to the department store held more interpersonal experiences than a similar journey today might entail. Upon entering the store’s elevator, clients were greeted by its operator and asked what they were looking to purchase. Once informed, the operator would promptly set to work at a panel of complex wheels and controls to close the elevator’s doors, change the lift’s speed and direction, and bring the passengers to their desired floor as comfortably as possible. This was no small feat at the time, given the bumpy that a clumsily-handled lift could provide. Today, however, advances in automation guarantee a smooth ride at the push of a button. The elevator operator’s job was valid and needed in the early- and mid-20th century, but having a paid employee fill the role today would seem redundant – odd, even. Now, we barely notice the time we spend in an elevator car.

While the scale of our current situation with large-scale automation and AI is obviously much broader than the rise and fall of the elevator operator, I think the anecdote speaks to my point: automation is on the horizon, and while we will likely lose some jobs because of it, we will ultimately come to adjust. Researchers are already forecasting change; according to a 2017 study by analysts at the McKinsey Global Institute, 5% of today’s jobs could be fully automated with currently-available technologies. Additionally, an estimated half of the activities employees are paid to carry out could be at least partially automated – especially in fields such as manufacturing, retail, and accommodation services. The study further projects that given improved technology, roughly 50% of work humans do today could be outsourced to automation by 2055.

These statistics sound like the start of a science fiction novel – but they aren’t frightening, not really. The study referenced above notes the increased productivity and importance of what they dub “knowledge work:” leadership and decision-making, interpersonal efforts, long-term planning and strategy, and creative innovations. Machines produce, but they don’t create; while automation allows businesses to thrive with higher rates of production and fewer errors, it can’t compensate for a human directive touch. Increased automation will allow companies to turn their focus away from sheer production and towards creative innovation for the future. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should content ourselves with automating and expecting productivity. Rather, we must plan for our integrated future by mapping out exactly how we can pair our human intelligence with mechanical capabilities. Company executives must devote time and effort towards building out business structures that embrace a tech-savvy future, rather than content themselves with outdated systems. After all, who is to say that organizational frameworks that work well now will function equally well in the next decade? We need to embrace an ideological corporate shift away from boosting daily production and towards fostering in-house creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Human resource departments stand to become even more important as the question of talent acquisition shifts ever further from: “Can he/she do the job?” to “Can he or she innovate within this role, and bring a new perspective to the department as a whole?” We stand on the cusp of a world where intelligence and thought leadership stand above mere production and mechanics. Our time to prepare and plan is now – otherwise, we may find ourselves lost, as it were, in the elevator lurch.

About the Author:

Hanane Benkhallouk is an Executive Director at Sustain Leadership. Attend her FREE seminar at the HRSE (HR Summit & Expo) on HR 4.0: The Future of Work on 5th November, 11:30 AM.


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