What will be the impact of technology in the future of work? Technological developments are coming at an increasing rate, creating new markets, new jobs and new opportunities to work, whilst simultaneously threatening other jobs and industries. This Lewis Silkin piece comments on the issues.
By now, we’re all used to seeing stories about new technology that can do what previously only humans could do - whether it’s robot waiters and cleaners or cars that drive themselves. Although the particular technology may be new, the underlying theme of technological advance is not. Technology has always been a key factor in shaping the way we work. From the wheel to the smart phone, technology has had a profound impact not just on how we work but what jobs we do in the first place.
New technology causes tension at work
In the abstract, most people generally see technological advancement as a good thing. However, technology has long had a complex relationship with workers - giving with one hand and taking with the other. From Luddites smashing textiles machines in the 19th century to the modern office worker’s smart phone blurring the line between home and work, technological advances have not always been popular with workers. Inevitably, the pace of technological change means it will play an increasingly important role in shaping the future of work. In particular, technology’s unrivalled ability both to create and destroy jobs will continue to have mixed consequences for workers in the future.
Business and technology: strategy for workplace needed?
On the one hand, technology is releasing some workers from the more routine and laborious parts of their job, leaving them free to focus on the more stimulating or creative aspects. Technology is also likely to continue to make it easier for some workers to work smartly and flexibly – although, as Yahoo! recently demonstrated , just because the technology is there does not mean it will be embraced whole-heartedly by everyone. Highly-skilled workers whose jobs are less easily replaced by technology will be in greater demand in the future and enjoy greater bargaining power, notwithstanding that they will face competition from an increasingly global talent pool.
On the other hand, large numbers of workers whose jobs comprise of mainly routine tasks are being left behind. Many jobs lost in the recession have become obsolete and are unlikely to return in the same form. Even if technological advances lead to a reversal of the recent off-shoring trend in certain sectors, while the factories might return, growing automation means the jobs are unlikely to. Historically, advances in technology have lead to the creation of new jobs, but now some are asking whether today’s technology is replacing jobs faster than it is creating them.
Left unchecked, all this raises the spectre of an increasing social and economic divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”, prompting important questions for both government and business.
Unemployment emerging, technology to blame?
If technological change does end up swelling the ranks of the unemployed then at some point in the not-too-distant future, radical policy interventions such as introducing a guaranteed minimum income, a right to paid work or shifting the social safety net towards the Danish model of flexicurity may receive serious consideration. Indeed, there has already been a nod in this direction with at least one major party supporting a jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed.
In the shorter term, it is likely that the government will look to employers to shoulder some of the responsibility for addressing these challenges. Many employers already taking action to plug the current skills gap may increasingly find that they are under pressure in the future to provide more support and retraining for employees whose jobs might be lost to technology.
It is notoriously difficult to predict the future with any accuracy. However, it would be safe to assume that the pace of technological change is only going to accelerate and, consequently, changes in technology will have an increasingly profound impact on businesses’ human capital needs. Anticipating and adapting to these changes will therefore be a key challenge for businesses and HR professionals.
By Lewis Silkin
Is technology creating or destroying jobs? Or both? Share your thoughts on how technology will affect the future workplace using the comments section below.
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