Long Lives, Smart Machines: Designing a Human-Centred Future of Work

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May 06, 2019
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This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and will feed into upcoming discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

We see today the confluence of two powerful trends: greater longevity and a greater capacity for workplace automation. 

One thing is certain: given the impact of these developments around the world, we can all benefit by learning from each other about how different sectors and different nations are addressing these issues. 

The rising tide of automation challenges all of us to harness technology and increase productivity by augmenting current jobs and creating new ones. That means devising human-centered systems where workers have the skill set and flexibility to take on tasks beyond what artificial intelligence can achieve. 

We need to allow people to continue to work as they age by having machines take on some physically demanding roles. For example, a robot that can lift a hospital patient may extend the working life of a nurse who is treating the patient. 

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

Building these human-centered systems will require creative collaboration across the public, private and non-profit sectors. It will require substantial, smart investment in education and training across the life course.  

This collaboration and investment will pay off in terms of the economic security and personal fulfillment of workers and in the bottom line of companies. After all, even the most ingenious robot is not about to buy the company’s products and services. 

As we adapt to technological change, we also need to design policies and programmes tailored to dramatic demographic change.  

Greater longevity is changing how we live. Individuals are increasingly living non-linear lives, rather than the traditional three stages of education, work and retirement. Systems need to catch up and so do products and services. 

Longer lifespans are leading to longer work spans, and therein lies a crucial answer to labour shortages and, at long last, a path to move beyond destructive myths about older workers. 

In both quantitative and qualitative terms, older workers are a key part of the solution as we look to the workplace of the future. Older employees bring to the job some vital assets, including problem solving skills, staying calm under pressure, collaborating with colleagues, sharing institutional knowledge, showing a higher level of engagement, having the capacity to serve  as a mentor and staying on the job longer. As rote tasks become automated, the uniquely human skills that experienced workers embody are crucial to the future of work. 

The further we go into this time of aging populations around the world, the more counterproductive it is to keep indulging in bias against older workers. We will find that age discrimination against older employees is not only unfair but also increasingly unsustainable.  

As the world’s population ages, businesses with experienced workers are better equipped to tap the enormous economic activity generated by people over 50. In the United States, that amounts to USD 7.6 trillion


Finally, as we address the consequences of greater automation and greater longevity, it is important to recognise that innovation—which is so often narrowly defined—goes well beyond designing new products.  

For example, managing a four- or five-generation workforce, with opportunities for mentorship and creative interaction across the age span, calls for innovation. Research shows that multigenerational teams are more productive, more engaged and have lower absenteeism—a win-win for workers and employers. 

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

We also need to be innovative in developing the most effective training programmes that enable us to tap human intelligence in tandem with artificial intelligence. 

Industry leaders recognise that a population growing older is a key driver of economic growth, innovation and value creation. 

AARP works with international institutions from the OECD to the World Economic Forum to identify best practices and economic incentives for a multigenerational workforce. We have launched a two-year endeavour to help companies build age-diversity into their strategic vision, training and hiring practices. 

I look forward to learning from the OECD’s immersion in this topic as we pursue effective, innovative approaches to the future of work. This issue crosses national boundaries—so must the solutions.

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Scott Frisch

Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, AARP

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