Are Digital Technologies Killing Jobs?

Are Digital Technologies Killing Jobs?

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

In the 70s computers were seen as demons gulping down jobs of the masses, in the political narrative of developing countries. I remember having witnessed militant workers smashing newly installed desktop computers in public sector organizations including banks. Computers were branded as agents of the capitalists out to destroy proletarian prosperity.

Today computers provide the lifeline to the economy and employ millions of young and not so young people at wages much higher than anybody ever imagined in the 70’s. As technologies have become smart, the quality of life and aspirations of people are on an upward spiral. The cost that we incur for living in a smart world is that our comfort levels are continuously being shaken up. Technology disruptions bring forth waves of newer and more enhanced solutions and services. Each breakthrough innovation produces the accompanying din and anxieties about adverse impact on jobs.

Just like the physiological evolution that was triggered by existential threats and the adaptive response of organisms, the economic evolution to a more livable and happier society would result not so much from negativity, resistance, violent reactions or procrastination but from intelligent adaption and innovative improvisations. What is needed is proactive planning by policy makers to equip employees, prospective employees and students to be ready with the skills needed for tomorrow. The anxiety about possible drying up of job opportunities is due, in a large measure, to the fact that our education is designed to teach the skills needed yesterday, while what we need are skill sets for meeting tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges. Even if you equip students for today’s needs, by the time they are out in the job market, their skills are very likely to be out-of-sync with what would be needed then. Such is the nature of technology disruptions.

To be candid and forthright, many of the jobs that exist today are vulnerable to the onslaught of technology revolution. One Mckinsey study says that about 50% of existing work can be automated to varying degrees. According to a recent World Economic Forum (WEF) report, emerging technologies are likely to result in the loss of 75 million jobs globally by 2022, while 133 million new jobs would be created over the same period, resulting in a net increase of 58 million jobs. Herein lies the challenge. It is not that jobs are going to disappear into thin air. It is also not the case that newer opportunities will not be created. The truth is that the new jobs in the digital age will require thoroughly new set of competencies, work practices and at-work behaviours that employees and job seekers are presently not trained for.

Today’s scenario is marked by three significant trends - technological innovations, significant talent shortages co-existing with mass unemployment and growing inequality in income. But one significant change when compared to the epoch-making disruptions of the past (like the industrial revolution and the birth of electronics) is that barriers to entry are getting demolished with unimaginable speed. Broad-basing and democratization of knowledge acquisition, entrepreneurship and innovation are sweeping the world. Even in a controlled society like China, many disruptive private initiatives have taken place with remarkable success. Look at Alibaba as an example. Emerging from China, the company has become a benchmark for agility and ambition. We are in a knowledge economy, marked by four breakthrough technologies, namely affordable and easy access to high-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud technology. These are set to produce versatile digital platforms, solutions and applications transforming most aspects of our day-to-day lives.

What is the future of jobs in this age of disruption? Well, jobs, as we have conventionally understood, are changing - in their context, content, processes and competencies. Jobs have become more fluid, flexible, and agile than ever before. There are jobs which machines can do better than humans or automation can significantly augment and there are jobs that call for human capabilities of creativity, discretion and judgement, which cannot in the foreseeable future be taken over by machines. Both categories would multiply and coexist in the digital age. These jobs will be complementing each other rather than competing with each other.

It is not that only high-skill jobs will be created in the digital society. There will be demand for a range of routine, semi-skilled and skilled jobs. Man-machine competition is more a matter of science fiction; collaboration is the name of the game. Human intelligence and creativity would focus on strategizing, planning, developing and improvising solutions to address newer challenges while routine, repetitive and precision operations would be handed over to machines.

As an example, let us take health care sector. The tasks of a surgeon or physician will be facilitated by robotics, advanced imaging technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning, to name just a few of the emerging fields. The success rate of a delicate neuro-surgery may be enhanced by robotics; reliability of diagnostics could be improved by use of artificial intelligence/machine learning and big data analytics. However, technologies can only enhance the treatment and do not replace the need for a doctor. Machines will bring in value-addition and quality upgrade to health care.

There is a very critical area in healthcare that no machine can yet provide - care-giving. Nursing Assistants, Dietitians, Counsellors and a range of such jobs will have increasing demands when the digitally aided health care enlarges the coverage of patients. Today, doctors spend a lot of time in clerical and documentation tasks; these can be handled more efficiently with the help sensors, voice-enabled reports, cloud-based data management systems etc. With quality time at doctors’ disposal, the attention, care and support that can be provided to the patients get enhanced. With peer-to-peer information sharing and consultations among doctors using advanced communication and imaging technologies including virtual and augmented realities, healthcare would be personalized, and risks would be mitigated substantially.

The care-giving function of health care will create jobs in large numbers. With an ageing population across nations, geriatric care will need competent staff with not only para-medical skills but also behavioral and social skills at a professional level. Psychological counselling would get refined and specialized to meet a variety of situations and contingencies; emotional therapy would open up need for a variety of professionals and para-professionals. Digital technologies and advanced analytics would enable personalized medication, care and therapy.

Travel, tourism and leisure sectors which are essentially people-intensive would continue to throw up demand for manual, low-skill and sophisticated jobs. Similarly, MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) activities would expand manifold creating massive demand for jobs at all levels.

Another area where there is likely to be an explosion of job opportunities is logistics involving transportation, warehousing and related data management. While technology will reduce wastages, improve cost-effectiveness and upgrade data support to this sector, massive infrastructure upgrade is likely to multiply the need for skilled operators, technicians, engineers and analysts.

Retail business is continuing its expansive phase; last-mile delivery services are creating huge demand for part-time and full-time jobs. In addition to store management and delivery services, analytics, customer relations management and a host of auxiliary and support roles are emerging with alacrity.

Education, wellness, personal care and grooming are functions where human touch, ingenuity, improvisation and personalization are going to be even more important. These jobs will remain the preserves of humans in the foreseeable future. A computer imparting behavioral training to humans is still a far cry. Technology applications in these areas of service are likely to result in major increase in the opportunities for trained personnel.

In Financial technology domain, skilled jobs will emerge with focus on data mining, analytics, security and application development. Here again transactional jobs are likely to shrink while discretionary jobs and jobs with specialized skills will be on the rise.

Job opportunities will multiply in the content generation business, too. In sectors such as media, entertainment, education, technology and professional specializations, we are witnessing a deluge of content creation. Gamification is emerging as a serious business with multi-billion-dollar potential. Entertainment and media are driven by creativity and imagination. Aided by technology, entertainment segment is set to boom over the coming decades, bringing with it waves of demand for creative minds.

One trend is however very clear. Government will no longer be the major employer in terms of numbers. E-Governance will enhance quality of delivery of public services and we are likely to see “minimum government, maximum governance” in action sooner than later. Governments would play more of an enabling and regulating role while private enterprise would drive most social and economic projects and initiatives.

Digital transformation is not only inevitable but also a necessary part of our evolution to a more empowered and enjoyable way of life. We need to develop the competencies required to ensure that the power of emerging technologies is leveraged for the success and prosperity of mankind. The essence and spirit of human progress is adaptability, flexibility, openness and continuous learning.

In the Indian context, since there are innumerable areas where we are laggards and need to catch up, we have to build the physical infrastructure, boost the intellectual and knowledge infrastructure and leap forward on the social infrastructure front with alarming urgency. All these efforts need human capabilities in full measure. Adoption of emerging technologies in various fields is likely augment the variety, quality and quantity of tomorrow’s jobs.

With a kaleidoscopic range of opportunities and skills, the future of jobs is quite bright. Jobs are not a pot of spilt milk; they are a boiling pot, if only we prepare ourselves to tap the emerging opportunities. There is no shortcut to a bright future for our people except skill development on a mission mode.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is CEO and Principal Consultant at Cherrypick India, Trivandrum and can be reached at