The Future of Work

Lately I’ve been giving much thought to work. Not my own work, but the entire concept of work.

It was prompted by what I see as the increasing prevalence of automation in workplaces and the rise in populist, nationalist movements around the world. How are they connected?

Well, while Middle America railed against their manufacturing jobs going to China, the fact is that more of their jobs were lost to automation. But that fact was lost in the midst of their angst. I’m old enough to remember the “made in Japan” era and the tut-tutting that accompanied that realisation. Now manufacturing is centred on China and will most likely move from there to…perhaps… India as wages rise in China and they become uncompetitive. It’s an inevitability.

What then are Australian workers faced with? Deirdre Wilmott from the CCI WA tells me that “WA’s niche manufacturing (jobs) (as opposed to large consumer manufacturing) have remained at around 90,000 in last few years” But she concedes that nobody will be unaffected by advances in technology and automation.

I’m as big a technology fan as you will find anywhere. I love the things we have at our disposal to make life easier, so this is not a rant against technology.

But when I see companies like Rio Tinto embrace automation on a serious scale, I can’t help but ask where are those displaced workers going to find work? Rio has driverless trains, driverless trucks and are working on driverless shovels. The aim, really, is to take humans out of the mining process.

The argument has been that workers are “freed up to do higher level/more meaningful work” The problem is those higher level jobs are not plentiful enough or coming online quickly enough to absorb those workers displaced by technology.

Robots are coming. Today I read of a robot from NASA that will go to work on a Woodside facility where the company will begin by “researching ways in which the Robonaut could perform tasks from more than 300 ideas suggested by the company’s operators, engineers and maintenance workers” Awesome! But what will happen to those workers who have carried out those tasks to date? Will they be provided with “more meaningful” jobs?

Ok, so some of the jobs of the future are not yet even imagined, but they are way in the future and people are being displaced now. What do we do with them?

Is welfare the answer? Welfare is soul-destroying for anyone who has taken pride in having a job, in deriving that satisfaction that comes only from having done a good day’s work; the satisfaction of knowing you’re paddling your own canoe, paying your way, contributing taxes for society’s benefit. No, not welfare.

What then? I don’t have any answers but I believe it’s time we began a national conversation on the future of work and how we keep people working in the face of downsizing, automation and the other advancements that are leading to job losses.

Perhaps we need to look at providing incentives to companies to maintain employment levels, because it’ll be a whole lot cheaper – financially, socially and from a mental health perspective – than putting them on welfare.

So, let’s begin the conversation.

(First published on LinkedIn, Feb 2017)

Posted in Blog