There is a line of thought that states technology has caught up with human potential. Largely unhindered by technical constraint, we live in an age where technology is unlocking untapped areas of human creativity. Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The first revolution is considered to be the revolution of the manufacturing industry. The second revolution is the larger industrial revolution, which was facilitated by the steam engine and transport infrastructure. The third is the digitization of production.
Generally speaking, the fourth industrial revolution is considered to be the fusing of physical, digital and biological worlds, which we are now facing.
1. Don’t Fear Automation: We’ve Been Here Before
In the process of mining this potential, we face a difficult period as large quantities of jobs become automated.
This is not the first time such a trend has occurred. During the First Industrial Revolution, there was a group of workers in the Northern counties of England – known as the Luddites – who aggressively opposed the machine-led disruption of many manufacturing systems.
The 19th century Luddites were chiefly concerned about losing their livelihoods. Their struggle was understandable but largely an emotional response that occasionally spilled into violence.
Two centuries and two industrial revolutions have passed since then. History has an uncanny knack of repeating itself and now acutely similar concerns are being raised about the automation of jobs. This promises to leave the unskilled workforce further behind. This process could be especially harmful for women by halting progression on the currently closing economic gender gap.
However, there is an important historical lesson to note here. The wisdom of hindsight reveals that the fears of the Luddites in the First Industrial Revolution did not reflect the job trend. Indeed, jobs expanded beyond the wildest imagination of the 1800’s.
2. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will Create New Jobs
The data can be dispiriting. Last year, the World Economic Forum estimated that by 2020 there would be ‘a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies’.
Major manufacturing hubs like those in India and Bangladesh are also set to be hit particularly hard. The World Bank estimated that nearly 70% of existing jobs in India may be replaced by automation. In 2012, futurist Dr. Thomas Frey predicted that two billion jobs might disappear by 2030.
These figures led one commentator to remark: ‘Aside from climate change, this reinvention of work is the most wicked problem facing humanity’.
You get the picture, it’s critical that a major reinvention of work takes place, and soon.
How Best to Respond?
The rate of technological development in the fourth industrial revolution leaves us, in some respects, without choice. Adoption of automation is the only available path we can take. It is the strategies we implement in reforming the future of work that hold the key to the future.
The challenges are closely tied to the leading three areas of risk highlighted in this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) report. The fears of automation impact economic growth and reform, the rebuilding of communities, and managing technical disruption.
A recent report from Oxfam highlights the currently unjust aspect of this revolution. The shocking truth of inequality (8 men share the same wealth as the world’s poorest 50% of people) points to the challenges we have in distributing wealth fairly in the future.
However, a successful evolution in the nature of work will eventually help to strengthen communities. If prosperity is spread across the economic spectrum, the universal benefits of technology will only serve a positive role in the world.
One of the characteristics of economic reform will be the creation of jobs in occupations that we are yet to envisage. A good example of this recently emerged from the US. It is projected that the occupation set to receive the largest amount of growth in the next decade is a wind-farm technician.
If you had said that at the start of this century, most boardrooms would have questioned your sanity. This is indicative of the type of the future job market we can’t predict, and a reason not to fear automation in other areas.
3. Investment in New Skills
In the majority of instances, we can predict where automation will replace human work. Any replicable, consistent manual or cognitive task will, at some stage, become automated. This should lead to a more concerted education of skills. Governments must put skills, rather than fact retention, at the top of the educational agenda.
It appears major business are already aware of the need to invest in new skills. A new study shows that ‘‘a clear majority of businesses believe that investing in skills, rather than hiring more short-term or virtual workers, is the key to successfully managing disruptions to the labour market for the long term’. This is a good sign, and will ensure a corporate revolution not only systemically but also culturally.
It’s more important than ever to add resilience to your organisation through the training of new skills. This shift in corporate thinking is an important development, and one that signifies a simpler revolution transition.
As a business, you have two options;
- Be afraid – put your head in the sand and watch your competitors productivity levels soar ahead of you