Work as we know it is in a state of flux. Technology is imposing rapid change, and the rise in automation capabilities and artificial intelligence are the chief catalysts. As Salesforce’s Futurist, I spend a lot of time forward-thinking and analysing trend data, and have shared my thoughts on what this technological change means for the future of work and how to navigate it.
There’s a lot of angst in the world right now that the rise of smart technologies are going to disemploy vast numbers of people. I appreciate why there’s anxiety, but if we look at history as a predictor of the future, this simplistic idea that ‘technology steals jobs’ is unfounded.
Over time, new technologies have emerged and while they have replaced jobs, they’ve also created more new jobs than those eliminated, and these new jobs have been of a higher value.
An oft-cited example is the impact of ATMs on bank teller employment in the US. When ATMs were introduced, everyone cried it would cause widespread unemployment for bank tellers, as customers no longer needed a human to hand over their cash.
However, ATMs changed banking completely, and the result was that banks now hire more tellers than ever before. It became cheaper to open bank branches as fewer staff were needed at each, so more branches opened – labour statistics show that between 1970 and 2010, bank teller numbers doubled.
While further tech developments (self service and online/app banking) mean the number of branches is declining again and the number of people employed as tellers is also dropping, that latter number is not expected to reach the pre-ATM level.
Yes, employment levels are fluctuating and the job of a bank teller has changed, but it has changed for the better. It’s evolved from being quite a simplistic cash-handling job to a role that offers advice, assists with complex transactions and improves the customer experience.
If you think back to the ’50s, we had hordes of telephone operators. When manual telephone switchboards were fazed out were these people left permanently unemployed? No. Many used their skills to become executive assistants, doing much higher-value work than inserting a pair of phone plugs into a jack.
Over the course of history, technology has enabled a smarter, more capable breed of worker. There’s no evidence that the technological revolution we’re currently navigating will be any different.
Yes, we’re looking at a future where simple job tasks will be automated. But, we’re only talking job tasks, not entire occupations, and only those tasks that are very routine and predictable in nature. Any job function that involves human interaction, such as managing others and applying expertise, are less susceptible to automation.
This automation will clear a path for a new world of augmented intelligence, aided by the very technology people are fearful of. It will be a world where employees are faster, smarter and more productive, adding greater value to customers.
A report from the International Data Corporation (IDC) reinforces that AI will unleash unprecedented levels of workplace productivity, boost global revenues by $121 billion over the next five years and generate more jobs than it will replace.
We’re already seeing this take affect. If you look at the rise in online shopping and the impact this is having on bricks and mortar retailers, you might think it’s destroying jobs. But an academic study in the United States shows we’re creating seven times as many jobs in the new online distribution sector as we’re losing in the traditional retail industry – and these jobs are higher skilled and better paid.