Work has a future

While the cost savings are clear, many wonder whether labour-saving technology means there won’t be enough jobs for all. Fear not.

Twenty years ago, in October 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium was launched to set standards for the use of this new platform. The web had just emerged into media consciousness and was spreading like wildfire among those with access to the Internet — a small but fast-growing group of scientific, government and business users.

The following year, a book by social scientist Jeremy Rifkin, ominously titled The End of Work, also captured the public’s imagination. The book predicted that the spread of computer-enabled technologies would separate workers into two groups: technologically empowered experts or providers of services and those whose skills and abilities would not be valued as much under the new paradigm. The result would be unemployment, wage inequality and a shrinking middle class.

Many tasks have indeed been rendered obsolete by the various applications of the Internet and many more will follow. Retail sales and the media, just to pick two examples, have been forever transformed by the ability to offer the widest array of goods and information ever available, at the flick of a few buttons — an array from which consumers can pick and choose exactly what they like.

Governments, insurance companies, banks and other large service providers have delegated to the Internet many services that used to be delivered face to face or over the phone. Computing and data services are increasingly being delivered through the cloud. Indeed, Internet-based platforms themselves are challenging incumbents in many industries by offering services directly to consumers or facilitating startups through crowdfunding.

It is likely that one day road transport vehicles will be able to dispense with human drivers altogether and that additive (3D) manufacturing, facilitated by the Internet, will have reduced the need for traditional assembly-line manufacturing jobs. Universities may have to shrink their brick-and-mortar, labour-intensive delivery models in favour of more flexible, web-based and studentcentric models. These and other developments will result in a great deal of job dislocation globally over the next two decades.

While the cost-saving benefits to consumers, entrepreneurs and firms are clear, many wonder whether labour-saving technological progress means that there won’t be enough jobs for everybody.

Fear not.

Notwithstanding the danger of misuse, which is a risk with any technology, history has shown that transformative technologies tremendously improve the human condition over time, including through the creation of jobs that no one thought could even exist when the technology emerged.

Governments must facilitate rather than hinder this transition. It is crucial not to put up barriers to the creation of new jobs by forcing society to hang on to the old ones through subsidies, regulation or protectionism.

This admonition is based on hard business realities: Nobel economics laureate Christopher Pissarides has pointed out that barriers to starting businesses and the high bureaucratically imposed cost of employing workers in Europe mean that Europe is in many ways a laggard in the fast-growing business-to-business services economy, although it is a leader in companies such as Ikea whose models rely on consumers doing a lot of the work themselves.

Countries that force their companies and citizens to hang on to past work practices invariably find themselves with less than they had to start with, as they are passed over for new investments in favour of other countries. The world has embarked on a technological odyssey and those who will do best are the ones who embrace its possibilities. We may not yet know what all these possibilities entail in terms of future jobs, but to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke in his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, we will think of something.