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Get ready to reinvent yourself for a new economy

Technology threatens to upend our assumptions about work, employment and income. Is this a real threat to society, or just hyperbole?

First, the optimistic scenario. When I was a young man in an economics class many moons ago, I was introduced to the “lump of labour fallacy.” This is the idea that there is only a fixed amount of work in the economy, so that if robots take some the jobs, there will be an increase in unemployment.

Much of history has shown this to be wrong. Immigrants might take some existing jobs away from locals; but they usually stimulate the economy to grow. Most forms of automation in the past have come with dire warnings of massive layoffs, but most technology to date has not killed off jobs in aggregate; it has boosted productivity and created new work. The introduction of ATMs at banks from the 1980s did not reduce employment in banks; quite the contrary. The mix of jobs changed. Computers have been great for the world; we are all doing more as a result.

So the optimists tell us not to worry: all will be well. Embrace robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Automation will redefine jobs, not eliminate them. Things will be cheaper to produce, which will be good for consumers. People will have more meaningful work. Humans will do the work of humans, rather than repetitive drudgery.

New jobs will appear to replace those taken by the robots, says this school of thought. That has always been the case. Your grandfather could not have imagined some of the jobs that are commonplace today, such as UI designer, social-media strategist, app developer or smartphone factory worker. In any case, a whole range of jobs will always require empathy and human interaction – no robot will do that for us.

So we’re OK then? Not quite. The techno-pessimists tell us to be scared. AI and robotics will lay waste to jobs on a scale never seen before, and they will do it not in a few isolated industries but across the board. All jobs that require repeated procedural work will go – and they will go faster than we imagine. The business case will be irresistible; the cost savings and productivity gains will send many home. And will all those hundreds of millions of suddenly-redundant unskilled workers just sit back and watch when they have no income? Look out, society…

There is clearly much to ponder. Profound changes are indeed coming. Many, many types of employment are indeed at risk. Many adjustments will have to be made, by governments, legal systems, organizations – and individuals. Allow me to dwell on that last category today.

Whatever you do, whatever the colour of your collar, whatever the heft of your CV, whatever the depth of your qualifications – your working life will change. It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a doorman, an artisan or an auditor, a lawyer or a labourer – change, it’s a-coming. If you haven’t woken up to this so far, please smell the (automated) coffee from tomorrow morning.

So what are you going to do? You have to study the effects of technological disruption on your industry and profession and craft very deeply. You have to see which part of your work will be consigned to history, which will be done by machines – and which will remain in your hands. You have to move on from repetitive process-based work to creative, insight-generating work. The future belongs to those who can work with technology and do the things technology can’t – show wisdom, make human connections and offer creative answers.

A plus: the future also belongs to storytellers! When routine work is done by drones, and when information gluts choke up the world, the only way to lead human beings and sell to them will be to enrol them in compelling stories. I foresee new employment and business opportunities for wordsmiths and masters of narrative.

Take a hard look at your skill sets. Take an even harder look at their future relevance. Brush them up. Try new things out. Study the young and their consumption preferences and behaviour patterns. Keep a keen eye on technology all around you. Understand it, work with it, deploy it. Otherwise, you will be its victim, not its beneficiary.

Do I exaggerate? Perhaps. Let’s meet on this page (if it still exists) in five years’ time to find out…

(Sunday Nation, 31 July 2016)

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