When it comes to whether advances in technology will help or harm our careers, opinion is divided.
Now a report by the UK’s Royal Society of Arts has set out four scenarios that show what the world could look like in 2035. According to the research, technology will impact work through automation, digitization, people management and something it calls "brokerage", such as you might find on an online marketplace like eBay.
This week, the Office for National Statistics in the UK predicted that automation would replace the jobs of 1.5 million British people. It said waiters, shelf fillers, elementary salespeople and bar staff were most at risk; but so too were dentists, teachers and medical practitioners.
Last year, a poll found 23% of UK workers - 6 million people - believed their job would no longer be needed in 10 years’ time. But the same poll also found nearly three-quarters were confident they could adapt and update their skills to cope with technological change. A separate forecast by professional services company PwC saw AI boosting UK GDP by 10% over the next decade.
Beware the prophets of doom
Meanwhile, the original RSA report warns against listening too closely to people who claim to know the future.
Predictions, write the authors, are “futile in the face of the vast complexity and unpredictability of major forces in the world, including the development and adoption of new technologies; trends that are impossible to predict with certainty. History is littered with incorrect estimates of technology’s progress and impact.”
Instead it sets out four scenarios that it calls “provocations and points of further discussion rather than fully baked proposals”.
The first, called the Big Tech Economy, describes a world where technologies develop rapidly, creating a new machine age that delivers high-quality products and services at very low prices. The downside would be rising unemployment and job insecurity, with power in the hands of a few global corporations.
In the Precision Economy, surveillance in the workplace leads to an instant rating of performance. Gig platforms manage staff and competition replaces co-operation. The RSA report says this is widely held to lead to a more meritocratic society, where effort is rewarded, resources are better used and waste eliminated.
The Exodus Economy, meanwhile, envisages an economic crash that cuts off funding for innovation and keeps the UK “trapped in a low-skilled, low-productivity and low-pay paradigm”. Capitalism is replaced by alternative economic models: co-operatives and mutuals emerge in food, energy and banking. Low wages drive many into self-sufficient living outside the cities.
The Empathy Economy forsees a future of responsible stewardship. Technology advances are matched by growing public awareness of its dangers. Tech companies self-regulate and work with external stakeholders. Automation is managed jointly with workers and trade unions. But the RSA warns: “This trend brings with it a new challenge of emotional labour, defined as managing one’s emotions, even suppressing them, to meet the needs of others.”
Warning that none of the scenarios offers a solution to every problem, the report adds: “Although Empathy Economy may appear the most desirable scenario, scratch the surface and one can see its dangers, including the growth of emotionally exhausting work.”
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Tame the fixation with AI
The future of work is more complex than the “blinkered narrative of simply more or less automation”, adds the report authors. Urging policy-makers to “tame the fixation with AI”, they explain that it is important to examine how technologies have actually been integrated in the workplace.
It cites the UK’s National Health Service, which still uses fax machines despite having an internet protocol since 1996. Ministers halted future purchases last year after revealing the NHS was the world’s biggest buyer of fax machines, with more than 9,000 still in use.
“With all the talk of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is easy to lose sight of non-tech trends that may shape our labour market,” the report says. “This includes the level of net migration to the UK, the strength of trade unions, the degree of investment in education and skills, the extent of climate change and the state of the global economy.”
As Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA, says: “So much is still to play for. With the right policies and practices, we will not just be able to rein in the worst effects of technology but marshal it for the betterment for workers, minimising drudgery and expanding jobs that bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives.”