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The future of work is more human than you think

Organisations and individuals need to shift skills priorities to benefit from the new reality of the fourth industrial revolution.

Lee Naik.
Lee Naik.

Forget the job coach. If you really want to know how to future-proof your career, your best bet is the World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs Report 2018.

The report confirmed most of the things we already knew: that automation and machine learning are set to create as many jobs as they displace, that the gig economy and flexible contract work will become standard, and that knowledge of data science is going to be a key differentiator in the job market over the next few years.

With more than two years having passed since the first Future of Jobs report, there have been some new developments. With the mainstreaming of chatbots and other consumer-facing artificial intelligence (AI), there's more of an understanding of how machine learning might integrate into our society. Now that we've had some time to get to know Sophia, Alexa, Pepper and the rest, there are noticeably fewer "Are robots coming to steal your job?" clickbait articles in the media.

The conversation around the future of work has shifted not to how many jobs stand to be lost by big, bad robots, but how organisations and individuals alike can shift their priorities to benefit from the new reality.

The end of busywork?

The new report predicts that in just five years, while 75 million current jobs stand to be displaced, 133 million new jobs may emerge at the same time; a net positive. Moreover, as businesses get used to the new normal of AI automation, flexible workplaces and task-specialised contract work, they'll start to engage with the concept of work differently. They'll focus on how machines can assist in the augmentation of their human labour for greater productivity and creativity rather than simply seeing automation as a cost-cutting measure.

By 2025, it is expected that more than half of total time spent on labour will be handled by machines.

By 2025, it is expected that more than half of total time spent on labour will be handled by machines. What's really exciting about that figure is the type of labour that's going to be handed over to robots: repetitive, time-consuming, tedious and unsatisfying.

Imagine a future in which everything from database management to debugging to budget reports are delegated to an algorithm. That leaves more time to do more complex and fulfilling work; the kind that creates more lasting value.

In other words, the mass adoption of automation in the workplace is set to make us more human, not less. We may not be able to match the fast processing skills of an algorithm, but that means we'll be more able to lean into our unique strengths: creativity, communication, empathy and problem-solving that even the most advanced AI cannot match.

More and more, it's becoming clear that the heroes of the fourth industrial revolution aren't machines and algorithms at all, but the humans who are open to the possibilities of the new workplace.

Learning to learn

Just how close are we to a radically transformed future of work? The WEF report predicts that nearly all of these drivers for change will occur in the next five years. In other words, if you're not getting your organisation ready now, you stand a serious risk of falling behind.

And just in case you think the timeline is different for emerging nations, the data suggests otherwise. With a significant part of the population working manual or labour-intensive jobs that will be most affected by automation, South Africa is particularly susceptible to the coming disruption. An estimated 5.7 million jobs are reportedly at risk from digital automation.

However, the flipside of that is that we also stand to gain more from the fourth industrial revolution. With the right policies and strategies in place, the estimated growth in productivity could drastically reduce the number of jobs at risk and potentially double the size of the economy.

South Africa does have a few advantages up its sleeve that more developed nations don't. As digital leapfrogs, we have far fewer legacy issues to overcome before we can adopt new technological and employment frameworks. In fact, the Future of Jobs report finds that the majority of the local population will need minimal reskilling to adapt; over 60% of the workforce will be able to be re-skilled in under three months, with just under half requiring no reskilling at all.

We have also proven to be naturally adaptable, one of the key factors that will define success in the fourth industrial revolution. With a young population and a focus on skills development and social inclusion in general, the ingredients are there for South Africa to weather the transition just fine.

There will, however, need to be a society-wide shift in thinking around what kind of skills are needed in the changing workplace. Most obvious is the need for data literacy. Even the non-technical roles of the future will need to have baseline knowledge of analytics and algorithms, the same way basic numeracy and literacy is required today.

Less obvious are the so-called soft skills: how to collaborate and connect effectively for value, how to drive your own relevance in a more fluid job market, how to recognise new opportunities and the need for change, and how to learn effectively. Preparing the workforce for the future is less about teaching specific competencies and more about developing a mindset for lifelong learning and openness to change.

It's time to forget the robot boogeyman or the excuses about lack of digital skills. It's up to us as South Africans to invest in developing workforces and workplaces that value active learning, entrepreneurial thinking and critical thinking. How ready is your organisation?

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