Human skills, not technology alone, will help us through the ‘double-disruption’ of Covid and automation. A new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Future of Jobs has highlighted the need to build on self-management and critical thinking skills, so that we can harness an increase in automation and an impending Covid-triggered recession to usher in a new wave of jobs that take advantage of both automation and human creativity and adaptability.
As the pandemic has pushed many people into working remotely and using many different technologies to work and relax, the importance of wellbeing as well as the utility of technology have come into stark focus, and created a unique foundation on which to build new jobs and a new way of working.
Working through a double-disruption
For many years, automation technologies have been changing how we work, by taking on more of the mundane, repetitive tasks that they are designed for. In fact, according to the WEF study, in the US around 2.6 million jobs were displaced between 2007 and 2018 as technologies became more user-friendly and more capable of handling mundane tasks, leading to a “rising demand for employment in nonroutine analytics jobs accompanied by significant automation of routine manual jobs” according to the WEF report. This decade of course opened with the devastating global financial crash of 2007-8 which saw a peak unemployment rate of nearly 10% by June 2009 in the US, increasing interest in automation technologies to help rebuild the economies of a globalized world.
In 2020, however, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be significantly worse, “destroying more jobs in two months than the Great Recession did in two years” says the WEF report, with US unemployment exploding from 3.5% in February to 14.7% in April 2020. According to IMF analysis, an estimated 97.3 million individuals or roughly 15% of the workforce across 35 advanced or emerging countries are at high risk of furlough or redundancy in the current context. The WEF report also cites evidence that 43% of businesses surveyed indicate that they are set to reduce their workforce due to technology integration, suggesting a similar move towards automation to mitigate the effects of recession. The world we live in today is different from the world ten years ago, however, and the immediate response to the pandemic by many businesses indicates that we will see a more collaborative working relationship with technology, and overcome this “double-disruption” much more effectively than we did in 2009.
Robotic hand and glove
The key difference between this pandemic recession and the global financial crash in 2008 is more than a decade’s worth of technological development and digital transformation. Paired with the average users’ familiarity with powerful technologies and the user-friendly focus of today’s complex tools (think of how simple it is now to access messaging, shared documents, video calls, and scheduling in one application, compared to 2007), today’s working world is far more digital and far easier to move online, with access to working from home nearly doubling since 2011 from 28% to 54% of workers.MORE FOR YOU
In fact, as much as 44% of the workforce have been able to work remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 84% of companies looking to further digitize their processes in response. This opportunity is of course not equal across the board, with an average of 24% of workers unable to work remotely, shrinking to as little as 4% in lower-income countries. “Despite these limitations,” says the WEF report, “demand from employers for remote-based work is increasing rapidly across economies,” and the amount of workers looking for remote job opportunities has also nearly doubled between February and June 2020. This trend also seems to be accompanied by a more positive focus on wellbeing and self-management in both employees and employers: Coursera data shows an 88% increase in personal development courses amongst employed people since Q2 2019 (a higher increase than any other course), and 34% of leaders reported that they are taking steps to create a sense of community and tackle the well-being challenges posed by the shift to remote work.
Skills and adaptability
Along with this greater appreciation of the importance of wellbeing, self-management and personal development, the changing employment landscape also places more emphasis on those human skills that increasingly distinguish us from powerful algorithms. As employers accelerate digitization and automate repetitive tasks, the WEF findings indicate that by 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal – but this does not mean that the quality or utility of that work is the same. Automating routine tasks allows a business to increase efficiency while shifting focus towards the most valuable aspects of a creative workforce, and allows for the creation of an entirely new field of jobs based on our human skills. While automation and digitization may displace around 85 million jobs by 2025, around 97 million new roles may emerge that are better adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.
This new jobs market divided equally between humans and machines will of course require us to work on those skills that can’t be replicated by a robot, a trend which is beginning to catch the attention of many business leaders. Of the top fifteen skills cited as being the most important in the run-up to 2025, only two were directly related to technology, sitting in seventh and eighth position respectively, and the rest were strongly linked to critical and analytical thinking, creativity, resilience, and emotional intelligence. In fact, over 90% of business leaders saw critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-management as increasingly or equally important skills leading up to 2025.
Change to come
The key to properly transition to the digital future of work then is not by acquiring technological skills, or trying to retain those jobs that will inevitably become automated, but to build on those critical, emotional skills that make us human in order to cultivate a balanced and productive hybrid workforce. Recognizing the need to focus on wellbeing and mental health as a consequence of moving to remote working is another crucial part of this transition: as we recognize the qualities that humans hold over machines, we also need to recognize and develop the conditions for those desirable attributes to thrive.
The future of work will certainly be different, but it will also be more productive and seemingly more sensitive to the real needs of people while working. Perhaps a more automated, digitized workforce will actually make us all the more human after all.
By Charles Towers-Clark / Forbes