The Death of the Full-Time Job?
By David Tal
By reflecting on the trends emerging today, we can speculate about what the future labour market will look like
The last five years have seen a steady increase in sensationalist headlines written by a diverse range of researchers, columnists and news pundits (myself included), all forecasting the end of full-time work. Often highlighted in these forecasts is the 2013 Oxford study by Frey and Osborne that predicts up to 47% of today’s jobs will disappear by 2040, largely due to machine automation.
That said, the reality is more nuanced.
The fear of machines taking our jobs first entered public consciousness in 19th century England, when changing tastes in fashion, a recession and automation pushed thousands of well-paid textile workers into unemployment. These workers didn’t take too kindly to this revolution and how they reacted ultimately gave a name to this tech-induced fear, and the people who experience it: Luddite.
Truth be told, these stories of impending doom from mass employment appear every one to two decades, often after a game-changing technology is commercialized into the marketplace. Farmers, telephone operators, travel agents, gas pumpers, elevator attendants – these jobs used to employ millions, and yet, even as they disappeared, the amount of jobs in the labour market remained unaffected over the long run. There’s a reason for that.
Why work won’t disappear
While it’s true that new, labour-saving technologies eliminate jobs, it’s also true that they create jobs for all the people who design and maintain these technologies, not to mention the entirely new industries that may emerge from these new technologies. But that’s only half the story.
What we often forget is the indirect effect of labour-saving inventions. In particular, they lower the cost of doing business, thereby freeing up investment capital for businesses to create new products or add new locations – we saw this with all the new bank locations that popped up after the ATM dramatically reduced bank teller jobs. Similarly, labour-saving technologies enable businesses to lower their prices to be more competitive, allowing consumers to buy more of their product (thereby fueling further growth) or using their savings to spend on other businesses, spurring new jobs elsewhere.
The direct and the indirect impact new technologies enable is the driving force behind our rising standard of living. It’s often invisible and buried under a mountain of hysterical news headlines. But that’s the catch, it’s easy to see the jobs disappearing before our eyes; it’s hard to predict the jobs that come next.
Given this reality, I’m not going to bother trying to forecast what specific jobs will be in demand tomorrow. But by reflecting on the trends emerging today, we can speculate about what the future labour market will look like and how we’ll need to train our next generation of students.
The changing nature of full-time jobs
It’s important to understand that robots aren’t really coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take over (automate) routine tasks. File clerks, typists, ticket agents – whenever a new technology is introduced, monotonous, repetitive tasks that require straightforward logic and hand-eye co-ordination fall by the wayside.
But for those with more complex jobs, automation is a huge benefit. By hollowing out our jobs of wasteful, repetitive, machine-like tasks, we’ll free our time to focus on more strategic, productive, abstract and creative tasks or projects. In this scenario, the job doesn’t disappear – it evolves.
That means that tomorrow’s jobs will demand a higher level of education, technical mastery, soft skills and abstract thinking than was ever required by past generations. As a result, those who lose their jobs to automation will need to be retrained, while those who keep their jobs will need to continuously retrain just to stay current with new technologies.
Due to this significant societal need to increase and update the population’s education and technical skills, between 2030-2035, we’ll begin to see governments institute a universal subsidy for all post-secondary education at colleges and for select university programs. While hard to imagine today, the same thing happened a half-century ago when governments fully subsidized high school education in order to train students for the changing nature of work.
Uberization of the labour market and rise of the flexible economy
- As automation displaces ever more low-skill workers from their jobs, the surplus of labour in the market is enabling companies to hire part-time labour in place of more costly, full-time labourers.
- New staffing algorithms are allowing large companies to more efficiently hire temp workers to staff their seasonal demand peaks, thereby changing labour from a fixed to a variable cost.
- Silicon Valley-fueled digital platforms, like Uber and Postmates, have created an on-demand labour economy to serve consumers’ on-demand needs.
These are just a few of the many broad trends that will continue to gradually shrink full-time employment as a total percentage of the labour market over the next decade.
Here again, it’s not the quantity of work that will change, it’s the complexity. In this case, more workers will have to learn how to balance multiple part-time jobs or how to manage their own freelance service.
Surviving the future of work
The reality is that most of the basic jobs and industries have already been invented. All future innovations (and the industries and jobs that will emerge from them) wait to be discovered at the cross-section of fields once thought to be entirely separate.
That’s why for today’s students to truly excel in the future job market, it will once again pay to be a polymath: an individual with a varied set of interests, and hard and soft skills. Using their cross-disciplinary background, such individuals are better qualified to find novel solutions to stubborn problems; they are a cheaper and value-added hire for employers, since they require far less training and can be applied to a variety of business needs; and they are more resilient to swings in the labour market, as their varied skill sets can be applied to many fields and industries.
In all the ways that matter, the future belongs to the super professional – the new breed of worker that has a variety of skills and can pick up new skills quickly based on marketplace demands. The sooner we can train and educate Canadian students toward that ideal, the more resilient the Canadian economy will remain over the decades to come.
David Tal is the co-founder and President of Quantumrun Forecasting, a research and consulting agency that uses long-term strategic forecasting to help organizations thrive from future trends. Learn more at: http://www.quantumrun.com/consulting.
Frey, Carl Benedikt and Michael A. Osborne. “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?” September 17, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf