Five actions to take now to prepare for technological disruptions to the workforce

The future could be an exciting place, where we tackle a lot of current challenges in society and create new opportunities.

New industry sectors – such as laboratory-grown food, vertical farming, autonomous vehicles, clean water technologies, renewable energy and synthetic materials – all hold out great possibilities for humanity.

However, these businesses will be highly automated from the outset, and will require very different capabilities and a highly skilled workforce – as well as HR departments and recruiters who understand this. The transition to these new roles will not be smooth for the production worker, shift manager, warehouse assistant, sales person, truck driver or even lawyer whose jobs are at risk.

Here are five fundamental actions that governments, businesses and society need to take now to ensure we are resilient enough to cope with the risk of large-scale technological unemployment.

1. A massive expansion of support for start-up creation
People will inevitably have to take more control of their own destiny. One way is to create their own job or small business that is far more immune to the risks of technology replacing humans. A massive expansion of support for start-up creation would both generate jobs for the mentors and accelerate the rate at which people can build new businesses and create new jobs.

2. Experimenting with guaranteed basic incomes and services
The firms doing the job automation need customers to buy their goods and services. Hence, we see many in Silicon Valley arguing for some form of automation tax to fund the provision of universal guaranteed basic incomes (UBI) and services (UBS) to everyone in society. 

Some governments refuse to countenance the idea on ideological grounds, because they think it reeks of communism. However, others are recognising that something needs to be done to avoid large-scale social decline and potential citizen unrest. Finland, Germany and Canada, for example, are undertaking UBI experiments to understand the concept, assess the social impact, measure the costs and prepare themselves while they still have time.

3. Rethinking education at every level
Success in the future will require a smart, adaptable and highly educated workforce. To survive and thrive, everyone will need to understand both the technologies and the mindsets shaping the future. There are lots of technological competitors to Uber and AirBnB. For the latter, its true point of difference is its mindset – a radically different way of thinking about how you deliver on customer desires without owning any assets or employing any of the service-delivery staff. 

We also need to help people develop higher-level skills that will help them learn rapidly and transition into jobs that don't even exist today. These include collaboration, problem-solving, navigating complexity, scenario thinking and accelerated learning.

Therefore, we need a massive increase in the provision of free adult education. We also need to reduce pupil-teacher ratios at school level to help with personalised support – the evidence on the impact this would have is clear. 

This also means looking at the charges imposed on students pursuing higher education. We need a well-educated workforce to propel the country forward – many other nations are providing free degree-level education. The UK needs a sustainable solution that doesn’t leave future generations demotivated, disillusioned and saddled with debts that they cannot repay.

4. Expansion of research & development in key knowledge sectors
A competitive economy demands cutting-edge innovation. A safe society requires research & development on the materials and processes that will enable that. Not all R&D lends itself to assessment based on the return on investment – some just has to be undertaken for the betterment of society. Hence, expansion of research funding, and of the number of places involved, is an important enabler of tomorrow’s job creation.

5. Addressing the mental health challenge
Across society, the scale and severity of mental health problems are rising. Large-scale job displacement will only increase that. An enlightened approach would be to fund people to train as therapists while still working today, so that they will be ready to help when the challenge becomes a significant problem in two to four years’ time. 

 

Yes, there’s a cost associated with enabling all these activities, but consider the alternative: what might be the risks and potential costs of inaction? A short-term saving today could lead to a long-term increase in the cost of funding unemployment benefits, and of policing a society that feels let down.

Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells and Alexandra Whittington are from Fast Future, which publishes books from future thinkers around the world exploring how developments such as artificial intelligence, robotics and disruptive thinking could affect individuals, society and business and create new, trillion-dollar sectors. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and ensure a very human future.

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