Future of work myths

We're so busy talking about tomorrow, we're almost forgetting about today

"Globalisation is expanding the supply of labour, while automation and artificial intelligence simultaneously disrupt the demand for it," said Amber Rudd, the UK's Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, speaking at the Recruitment and Employment Federation back in May.

It's the sort of vanilla speech we've come to expect from politicians when contemplating the impact of new technology on the future of employment. It's regurgitation. Ever since Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne's landmark probability study in 2013, which warned that about 47 percent of US jobs were at high risk of being automated, the ‘robots killing jobs' line has been something of a refrain.

While it does have some grounding, it has undoubtedly been blown up into mythical status. It's the go-to theme for any future of employment debate and politicians love a popular theme. So, what should we be aware of when it comes to the terminology? Here are some possible myths to consider.

The Terminator Myth

"The future is both troubling and exciting," says Daniel Susskind during one of his Ted Talks. "The threat of tech unemployment is real and yet it's a good problem to have."

Susskind, a Fellow in Economics at Balliol College, Oxford University, refers to The Terminator Myth, the idea that brutal machines will ruthlessly decimate jobs. Out of all the myths this is the most popular, so isn't it true? Aren't we in danger of being overrun by AI?

Susskind's notion that the emergence of automation will also be good for work is well supported by various studies.

Albert Ellis, CEO of tech recruiter, Harvey Nash, says that "one thing we can say for certain is that numerous new types of roles are sure to be created by technology, alongside those that will become obsolete."

In fact, in the recently-published 2019 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 69 percent of respondents believed that the new jobs created by technology will compensate for those lost.

"At Harvey Nash we have seen that technology careers across the globe are in a state of flux," adds Ellis. "On one side, technology is ‘eating itself', with job roles increasingly being commoditised and automated. On the other side, new opportunities are being created, especially around AI, big data and automation."

The No Work Myth

"We have to distinguish between work and jobs," says Tom Cheesewright, author of High Frequency Change, when considering the future impact of technology on the workplace.

"I don't believe that jobs, in the traditional sense, will be created in the volume that would be required to offer meaningful employment to the many millions of cab drivers, call centre operators, retail assistants, warehouse workers, lawyers and accountants, who might be displaced by technology," he adds.

This is the idea that jobs and not work will be impacted by automation. There will still be lots of work but it will be structured differently. It's no secret that freelance working is on the rise - for example, Morgan Stanley research claims that freelancers now represent 35 percent of the total US workforce and this could rise to over 50 percent by 2027.

With this change, traditional jobs are already shrinking. There is a gradual shift in mentality on both the employer and employee side of the recruitment fence and this has both advantages and disadvantages to the workforce.

This is different to the gig economy too, which, for the most part, represents additional work on top of the day work. According to recent research from the University of Hertfordshire, the gig economy is exploding across Europe. In the UK, it has doubled in the last three years.

"The question is how do we support those in inconsistent work, how do we enable constant learning and reskilling to allow people to keep up with a fast-moving market for skills," asks Cheesewright. "How do we make this new world of work a positive for more people, not a terrifying world of risk?"

The People are Typecast Myth

Parvinder Rehal is head of innovation for the future workforce at Accenture's Dublin-based research and incubation hub called The Dock. It's Rehal's role to raise the future of work question to Accenture's clients, who, he says are increasingly concerned about technology displacing jobs.

"A high concentration of jobs are sleepwalking into the future and there are some fundamental psychological challenges that need tackling," he says. "One of the biggest issues is the myth around the idea that people are typecast into their roles."

Rehal talks about the Unreasonable Future initiative, where he says he has seen "human creativity solving big problems." His point is that businesses have to ride the waves, change with the times and not fight the inevitable. This means reskilling employees and using human creativity to evolve business and come up with new ideas.

For one business, this is about relevant education and training. Box Media is described by its founder Claire Munn as the "Netflix for the workforce" and while it does deliver training and education in ‘seasons' of easily digestible videos, in some ways the term trivializes the philosophy. The key to Box Media is fearlessness. Don't be afraid of change. Rip up the old content and start delivering education and skills through relevance.

According to Munn, Box Media is building what authors Paul Daugherty and James Wilson referred to in their book Human + Machine as the missing middle, the bit where training needs to somehow develop ‘differentiating skills'. This is achieved through more personalised and engaging content based on storytelling, developed with tools such as the business's own communication quotient tool, or CQ for short. This works in combination with neuroscience and AI to develop relevant content across industries.

Does it work? Well there are no shortage of takers. As well as working closely across Accenture's portfolio of clients, Box Media is also working with education publisher Pearson to re-develop some of its content. The key here is that through well delivered relevant training, people can re-skill and develop better communication skills to enable them to be more resilient to change. In a sense, corporate education practices need a reboot and Box Media is more than prepared to flick the switch.

"By starting from scratch and making training content relatable for the workforce," adds Munn, "we can influence a better workflow and ultimately the future of work."

We don't know what we know

Following on from this idea of underutilised people, it's possible to see how in many ways we are stabbing in the dark when it comes to predicting future working patterns. We can talk about tech and HR trends and even the impact of something like Universal Basic Income (UBI) on economies but we don't really know how on a large scale the workforce will really deal with the reality of change.

"The future of work is one of the defining challenges of our time," said Marianne Thyssen European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility during a speech last April. And she is probably right but it's not a big bang moment. Change is already happening and will only accelerate.

As Rehal at Accenture says, "there will be winners and losers but we are all trying to minimise the losers." And that's the point. Through a concerted effort starting now; through innovation and rapid development of skills in new technologies, humans will continue to work.