I travelled to Ottawa, Canada, last week to attend a workshop sponsored by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The workshop’s theme was ‘‘Digitization and the Future of Work: Building a development-oriented research agenda.’’
Some of the questions that the workshop sought to address included: How will the automation of work impact emerging countries? What are the sources of learning that can be relied upon to support future jobs? How can governments prepare their citizens to thrive amidst this changing nature of work? And how can the Global South leverage digital entrepreneurship?
These are hard questions policy makers must contend with. It is dreadful to imagine a future without work in countries where majority of the citizens are aged below 30. Already, many of the developing countries are experiencing high unemployment rates. Yet the pace of technological change threatens to send many more people out of work. Many of the jobs today will be redundant in less than 10 years since the world of work is being reshaped faster than we have ever imagined before.
In 2014, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates said:“Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. ... Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. ... 20 years from now, labour demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”
Barely three years later, there are driverless cars dotting the roads in the city of Pittsburgh. Gates may have overestimated the period it would take for labour demand to be substantially lower, but he was right to state that we don’t have that in our mental model yet.
If we did, we would be thinking about the skill set we need for the future. As it stands now, more than 85 per cent of the routine work in most developing countries will disappear. As the cost of automation drops, cheap labour is no longer a competitive advantage. The argument that developing countries can still buy time has no ground. The problem with developing countries is magnified further by the fact that the millennials shun artisanal work.
Many village polytechnics built to develop technical skills are empty. Yet in most of these countries you cannot find a competent plumber or carpenter. These are skills that have not been automated, but can guarantee employment for some time before the computers catch up in this area.
Our discussions centred on how to build a research agenda around the pace at which computers are displacing human beings from their workplaces. Whilst no one knows what the future jobs will look like, there are indications that it will have a lot to do with digital application. The skills of the future must, therefore, include some software component. Indeed, while I was in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that software coding would be taught from high school, notwithstanding the fact that only a few high schools are prepared to take up such a task.
The disruptions across the world are coming from mainly three technologies: Big Data, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. This is largely where computers are leveraging big data to learn and mimic human beings. As a result, machines talk to other machines and make intelligent decisions.
However, there are areas where computers cannot beat human beings and for some time, jobs in these areas will continue. These include: creativity, social intelligence and perception and manipulation. These areas are usually associated with high level skill workforce that is not widely prevalent in Global South.
The fear now is that many of the Global South countries will bear the greatest brunt of the emerging phenomenon where computers will take most of the low-skill work.
As research develops around future of work, policy makers in low skill level workforce should look towards enabling digital literacy, lifelong learning, socioemotional skills and languages as mitigation measures against job losses as a result of digitisation. Let us not underestimate what the impact of laptops to children means in the future.