The future world of work is changing

'How can the learners and students of today ensure that they are prepared for future work roles that can’t yet even be clearly defined?' asks the writer (John McCann)

'How can the learners and students of today ensure that they are prepared for future work roles that can’t yet even be clearly defined?' asks the writer (John McCann)

COMMENT

For most people, the year 2028 seems like the very distant future. But when you consider that 18 years have already passed since the prospect of a new millennium had the world in a panic over what would happen to their computers and data, the next 10 years are sure to fly by at a similarly eye-watering pace.

Although the number of days a year is never going to change, the pace at which the world changes every day is guaranteed to keep accelerating.

And, although it’s possible that predictions of driverless cars, wearable cellphones and voice-controlled appliances will have become our lifestyle realities by 2028, the one area in which complete transformation is guaranteed is the world of work.

Thanks to a combination of elements, not least of which are rapid technological evolution, massive urbanisation and fast-diminishing energy, water and food resources, the relationship between industry and broader society is likely to change quickly and radically.

READ MORE: Eish, robot: Automation is eating jobs

This is the real impact of the so-called fourth industrial revolution. The role of technology is not only growing but its effect is also demanding a completely new way of thinking about the work we do and our impact on society because of it.

Of course, it’s very difficult to contemplate this future when we can’t really define it. For example, it has been posited by many trend analysts that the hottest, most sought-after jobs in 2028 don’t even exist yet.

Then there are the other transformative forces that will shape the way we work in a decade’s time, the most notable of which are almost certain to be the prioritisation of innovation over function; the massive growth of large corporations but the shrinking of physical work spaces, as remote and contract employment arrangements reduce on-site staff counts; and the rising importance of social and environmental sustainability commitments as the essential cornerstones of employee, employer, customer and investor relations.

Most analysts broadly agree that workplace changes are inevitable but futurists appear unable to reach consensus about whether the stellar advances in artificial intelligence and automation will mean that, in 10 years’ time, robots will be performing the majority of jobs currently done by humans.

Although this is understandably a source of worry for those who think their roles could be done by robots, this fear is typically tempered by the argument that the rise of technology and artificial intelligence will, in fact, create untold new work opportunities, although these will be very different in shape, form and function from the jobs most people currently hold.

This raises the question: How can the learners and students of today ensure that they are prepared for future work roles that can’t yet even be clearly defined?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. There’s also no denying that universities, governments and employers have a vital role to play in helping today’s students to become tomorrow’s thriving employees, managers and leaders.

The first and arguably most important step towards discharging that responsibility is to focus less on using technology and automation merely as a way to create greater profitability and more on how the workforce of the future might engage with technology for the mutual benefit of corporations and society.

READ MORE: Minimum wage vs the robot age

Ultimately, it matters little what the world looks like in 10, or 20, or even 100 years’ time. What’s really important is that the people who live and work in that world have been equipped to stay firmly in touch with their humanness.

So, although robots may be doing much of the work and the concept of full-time employment for life will probably have become somewhat archaic, the focus of the workplace should and will always be on people.

More specifically, that focus will need to be on how best to equip and enable employees to engage with technology to achieve the types and levels of results that we probably cannot even contemplate today.

This means that preparing today’s young people to be productive employees tomorrow requires a shift in education and employment criteria from purely academic-based outcomes to the demonstrable ability to access and use knowledge, acquire, adapt and develop skills and engage meaningfully with others and the world at large.

Because, although competition, capitalism and commoditisation may well be at all-time highs by 2028, an agile and innovative human workforce, with a sincere commitment to ethics, sustainability, fairness and the greater good, will ultimately always differentiate the successful future organisation from the failed one.

Professor Alwyn Louw is president and academic president of Monash South Africa

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