This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, the opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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A quick Google search of the phrase “the future of work” yields over 100 million hits. A lot of them fall in what I’ve been calling the “robot zombie apocalypse” camp; the idea that massive job loss is coming because of rapid advances in artificial intelligence. For example, a report from McKinsey said 800 million jobs worldwide could be automated in the next 10 years.
Some even define the future of work as the end of work—that’s even the title of Jeremy Rifkin’s book on the subject. Some writers think that’s great because they say jobs aren’t that great to begin with. They think we might as well get on with paying people a guaranteed basic income so that people can enjoy their leisure time. Others take a more dystopian view that artificial intelligence is a threat to our very existence.
But to me, this all sounds like people have been reading too much science fiction. I don’t think either view has much to do with what is really happening to jobs—or with what people fundamentally want from work.
Find out more with the OECD Employment Outlook 2020
Technology has always created more jobs than it has destroyed, and there is no real reason to believe it will be any different this time. But work is changing in dramatic ways, and the pace of change in work is accelerating. People—or nations—that ignore the implications of these changes do so at their own peril. Perhaps we shouldn’t be worrying so much about the future of work, but we should be working hard to prepare people for the work of the future.
For decades, the global economy has been placing an ever-increasing premium on knowledge and skills. An inevitable consequence of the shift is a growing gap between the need for talent and the number of people who have what it takes to thrive today and in the workplace of the future.
The global consulting firm Korn-Ferry recently documented the extent of this talent gap by analysing employment-market trends in 20 countries in the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. They estimate the size of the talent gap as 85.2 million people by 2030, representing lost potential revenue of USD 8.5 trillion. As a percentage of the total global workforce, the talent gap can be expected to grow from 3% in 2020 to 11% by 2030.
To respond to this challenge, we need to understand that the nature of work is changing. Long term, the work of the future is human work—the work that only people can do as artificial intelligence and other technologies perform an ever-increasing array of tasks. To thrive in this new world of work, people need to think critically, reason ethically, interact personally, and serve others with empathy.
Read more on the Forum Network: Imagining a more inclusive and optimistic world of work by Jacques Van Den Broek, CEO and Chair of the Executive Board, Randstad
Technical skills still matter, but what matters more is a person’s ability to apply those skills in ways that solve real-world problems. The old choices between “soft skills” and “hard skills” (and the accompanying argument about whether people need “liberal arts” or “science and technical” education to get them) are largely irrelevant today. Everyone needs both because everyone needs durable skills that can help equip them for the changing dimensions of the human work ecosystem.
As more work becomes human work, the worlds of work and learning are merging. When virtually everyone needs to be learning—and learning all the time—a system in which learning and earning are treated as separate activities is frankly unworkable. These two aspects of life are becoming one.
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to ravage global economies, we already understand that we won’t return to “normal” in its aftermath. What is unmistakable is that workers at the lower end of the economic scale are the ones most affected by the pandemic, including many women, members of minority groups, rural populations, and immigrants.
The pandemic has targeted these workers with terrible effectiveness. According to the World Economic Forum, 88 million to 115 million people around the globe will fall back into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic, undoing decades of progress. Millions more will struggle to regain their place in the economy as the pace of automation of low-skill jobs accelerates—yet another impact of the pandemic. The World Bank says the pandemic is “the worst reversal on the path towards the goal of global poverty reduction in at least the last three decades”. Our collective responsibility to act is clear.
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Herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge we face as more people lack the knowledge and skills required for meaningful work in a changing economy. We know that people whose economic security and personal well-being are threatened make the best audiences for authoritarianism. It’s no coincidence that the ranks of the violently aggrieved have swollen as middle-class opportunities and economic mobility have shrunk. When unscrupulous leaders take advantage of fear and perceived loss of privilege to advance their own agendas, democracy itself is at risk.
It is profoundly important that the talents needed for human work—reasoning skills, appreciation of evidence, respect for difference, ethics, and empathy—are the same ones we need to act as engaged citizens in a changing and complex world. Preparing more people for the work of the future—human work—may just instill hope and confidence for the future of our society.
Jamie Merisotis is CEO of Lumina Foundation and the author of “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”
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