What will unemployment look like in the future?

Fjord Family

By John McCarthy for The Drum,

If machines really are set to take over the workforce, will we need to reassess our roles as human beings, develop new skills and decide whether to divert investment – both economic and social – elsewhere?

Forrester predicts robots, AI, machine learning and automation will replace 16% of US jobs by 2025. According to Rohit Talwar, a futurist and chief executive at Fast Future, service sector jobs will be first on the chopping block. Talwar says: “What’s becoming abundantly clear is that, at the national, business and individual level, what will determine our ability to survive and thrive in a fast-changing world is education and awareness.”

Talwar instead predicts growth in jobs that “support our development and survival as humans, from teaching and social work to emergency services and caring for the elderly”.

“We might be seeing the beginning of the end of jobs as the primary means of feeding our families. The belief is that this tech is creating a level of societal abundance that eliminates both the need to work and the link between earnings and access to goods and services.”

In the UK, a study by AI market research company Streetbees found 61% of people are worried about machines taking their jobs, and two thirds believe there should be laws restricting businesses from replacing human staff with robots. These stats conflict with another finding from the company – 66% of people agree intelligent machines will increase their standard of living. Employment anxiety appears to be a major hurdle in unlocking the potential of technology in the workplace.

What if we didn’t need to work?

Universal basic income (UBI) is currently being tested in Finland to “find ways to reshape the social security system in response to changes in the labor market”. From January 2017, a random sample of 2,000 unemployed people between the ages of 22 and 58 have been paid a flat, untaxed sum of £475 a month irrespective of their living circumstances.

The Finnish government has announced, however, that it will conclude the pilot to explore alternative schemes. Miska Simanainen, a researcher at Kila, the Finnish government welfare agency, says the experiment was never utopian, despite the media hype portrayed. “The Finnish government is interested to know if basic income would be a policy to increase employment in Finland,” he says.

Reprograming the species

Thomas Kolster, the founder of Copenhagen’s Goodvertising Agency says the rise of the machines is a “welcome opportunity to redefine our role as consumers and citizens”. Kolster says we are “moving away from buying products to asking ‘what can brands enable me to achieve?’”

He urges us to focus on our unique ability for “compassion and social skills”, and to discard the pursuit of materialistic wealth to focus on “flourishing humans, prosperous societies and thriving ecosystems”.

Mark Curtis, the co-founder and chief client officer at Accenture’s design and consultation firm Fjord, believes technological advancement will “create more jobs than it renders obsolete”. He points to the history books: “Although the internal combustion engine reduced the number of traditional jobs associated with horses, it also brought with it a whole new set of required skills, many of which were simply unimaginable a few years prior.”

Curtis urges the workforce to focus on social and human interactions: “Our ability to collaborate effectively is the reason we have managed to create an advanced civilization.”

Freed up from the nine-to-five slog, we will be able to engage in creative pursuits – something we will likely always outdo machines at. Curtis is not convinced a non-human could break new ground in music or art: “While AI can digest and regurgitate creative work based on what is already out there, what it cannot replicate is the unpredictability of creativity. Exploring the parameters of creativity necessitates us asking ourselves the question of what it means to be human. Despite the fact that we are increasingly coding computers to be empathetic, the fact remains that while they may be able to do empathy, they still can’t mean it.”

If the worst comes true, and workers are displaced en masse from the workforce by machines, Curtis says we will need to address what an “income should be”. “In such a future, income becomes less about meeting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and more about how human beings discover and realize their purpose.”

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