Since the dawn of time, humans have developed tools and technology to assist in the pursuit of our goals. Large shifts in technology have resulted in large shifts in social structures, and how individuals both contribute to society and make a living. The Industrial Revolution, for example, brought large-scale changes to our socio-economic structures and the kinds of work people did.

Today, technological advances are rapidly making it possible to automate much of the work currently carried out by humans. This applies to both blue-collar jobs, through robotics and the Internet of Things, and white-collar work, through artificial intelligence. The wide applicability of these technologies has led to broad concern about the destruction of jobs. Indeed, according to a 2014 Oxford study, 47% of jobs in the US could be replaced by automated processes in the next two decades.

Of course, as many have noted, while technology has always removed the need for some types of jobs, it also creates new ones. Technology is a set of tools that we use in different ways to increase efficiency. The Industrial Revolution destroyed some jobs but created many more. It also increased the aggregate wealth of society and began to create a middle class who could enjoy health, education and other benefits that previously had been available only to the wealthiest. It can be challenging to predict the kinds of jobs that this new revolution will create and in what quantities, which makes the situation seem worse than it actually is. But nine of the top ten most in-demand jobs of 2012 did not exist in 2003, suggesting that this latest revolution is creating new employment opportunities.

For many, this picture is overly optimistic. The new jobs require a completely different skills set – you can’t turn an assembly plant worker into a data scientist overnight, if at all. The Industrial Revolution played out of several decades and yet still caused massive social upheaval, unrest and widespread deprivation for many. The digital revolution may happen much faster, across large areas of a complex, interconnected economy that has very tight in-built feedback loops.

Others are concerned that this time is different and that we are facing a permanent reduction in the need for human labour. While many initially viewed this as economically naïve, some experts – including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers – are now not so sure. Science fiction has long imagined a future where we no longer have to work and can spend our time on more noble pursuits. Could it be that we are reaching that inflection point in human history?

If we are, neither our social norms nor our economic systems are ready for it. Today, self-worth is inherently tied up with jobs, professions, careers and trades. And in a global economy based on neoclassical models of capitalism, mass unemployment spells depression, not utopia.

On the question of jobs, William Gibson’s famous aphorism may hold true: “The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed.” Certainly, some of these concerns can seem academic or blinkered from the context of a developing country looking to develop key industries and provide employment for its people. At the other extreme, we can already see post-industrial pockets in different advanced economies, from Detroit to Japan. A recent Atlantic article explored the possible futures that may play out in a world without work. It painted a mixed picture: on the one hand, we might have the time and freedom to explore our creativity and passions; on the other, we might be heading for a “gig economy” where smaller parcels of work replace the security of full-time jobs.

The extent to which we replace or transform jobs, or the extent to which this is a transitional shift or a permanent change, is not predefined. We have a choice over how we want to use technology, over which path we take and over which scenario emerges. Perhaps the question is not a theoretical one, nor an empirical one, but one of intent and principle: what kind of society do we want to have?

Have you read?
How do you create jobs in a low-growth world?
How automation will change the way we live and work
What can nanotech do for job creation?

Author: Derek O’Halloran, Head of Information Technology and Electronics Industries, World Economic Forum 

Image: Umbrellas are held by robots produced by KUKA Robot Group, at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover March 14, 2015. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen