In the age of automation will jobs really matter?

James Mabbott, Partner, Head of KPMG Innovate
It’s time to change the conversation around the jobs of the future.

In 2013 Oxford University published a paper “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” that estimates that 47 percent of jobs in the US are at risk. In 2015 CEDA published the paper, Australia’s future workforce? arguing that five million jobs or almost 40 percent of jobs that exist today are at risk of disappearing in the next ten to fifteen years. And just recently CSIRO’s Adrian Turner echoed the 40 percent figure in a keynote speech before going on to paint a perspective of where the jobs of the future are likely to be.

But perhaps it is time to shift the debate from what type of jobs will still exist in the future, to what kind of society we want to have.

Jobs and status

Capitalism and the job have defined modern western society. Employment has led to increased wealth and in general a better quality of life. What you do has become synonymous with who you are and your value in society. And with each industrial revolution we have seen the working landscape shift dramatically and new forms of employment created even as old ones are lost.

Today, it’s also about a new kind of employee: a non-human employee, or no employee. Coachmen may have made the transition to taxi drivers a century ago. But what happens to cabbies when self-driving cars become the norm?

Rethinking employment

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the relationship between employment and society. The jobs discussion is critical. We need some idea of what the future will likely look like so we can plan for it, socially and economically. To do this, we need to change the narrative.

We are asking the wrong questions.

Will we see a mixed intelligence environment where mundane and low value jobs are automated, and humans provide the creative flair, imagination or empathy currently considered beyond artificial intelligence? Or will AI start taking over this ‘high value’ work as well? Will growth sectors such as healthcare, fuelled by longer lives and ageing populations, fill some of the gap?

Sitting underneath all of this discussion, or perhaps above it is the assumption based on at least recent history that jobs matter. That, in order to have a fully functioning socially cohesive, safe and happy society we need close to full employment. That without employment our social contracts will fall apart and we will have pitchforks and flaming torches at the town hall.

Creating value

There are some good arguments for why this is the case. In our, society jobs create value. This means wealth with which we can educate our children; feed, clothe and house our families; manage our health, and have time for leisure activities. Another reason is less tangible but for some more important: that your job can define who you are and your relative value to society.

This is why the jobs discussion matters so much. Today, to not have a job means potentially being unable to look after yourself and your family. It suggests that your ability to contribute and create value for society is gone. That your life has less meaning.

This leads to the valid fear that the new economy of digital jobs, robots and artificial intelligence environments will mean greater productivity but fewer jobs. Uber with autonomous vehicles may mean no drivers. A single instance ERP system in a digital enterprise may mean no human auditor is required. Self-coding code may mean no coders.

We know that automation is going to destroy jobs. There’s a slew of research behind predictions about the extent robots, AI and automated processes are going to replace humans. But perhaps we need not be too alarmed.

If we start from a point that acknowledges jobs are shrinking in variety and number, perhaps we can find other ways to define value creation. We can address the very structure of society: which some countries are already doing with concepts such as universal basic income schemes.

The redefinition of what “work” means, and the perception of value creation can help us transition to a world where automation and robotics are doing the heavy lifting.

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