The future of work: Technology, jobs and augmented intelligence

Work as we know it is in a state of flux. Technology is imposing rapid change, and the rise in automation capabilities and artificial intelligence are the chief catalysts. As Salesforce’s Futurist, I spend a lot of time forward-thinking and analysing trend data, and have shared my thoughts on what this technological change means for the future of work and how to navigate it.

There’s a lot of angst in the world right now that the rise of smart technologies are going to disemploy vast numbers of people. I appreciate why there’s anxiety, but if we look at history as a predictor of the future, this simplistic idea that ‘technology steals jobs’ is unfounded.

Over time, new technologies have emerged and while they have replaced jobs, they’ve also created more new jobs than those eliminated, and these new jobs have been of a higher value.

An oft-cited example is the impact of ATMs on bank teller employment in the US. When ATMs were introduced, everyone cried it would cause widespread unemployment for bank tellers, as customers no longer needed a human to hand over their cash.

However, ATMs changed banking completely, and the result was that banks now hire more tellers than ever before. It became cheaper to open bank branches as fewer staff were needed at each, so more branches opened – labour statistics show that between 1970 and 2010, bank teller numbers doubled.

While further tech developments (self service and online/app banking) mean the number of branches is declining again and the number of people employed as tellers is also dropping, that latter number is not expected to reach the pre-ATM level.

Yes, employment levels are fluctuating and the job of a bank teller has changed, but it has changed for the better. It’s evolved from being quite a simplistic cash-handling job to a role that offers advice, assists with complex transactions and improves the customer experience.

If you think back to the ’50s, we had hordes of telephone operators. When manual telephone switchboards were fazed out were these people left permanently unemployed? No. Many used their skills to become executive assistants, doing much higher-value work than inserting a pair of phone plugs into a jack.

Automation: A springboard for augmented intelligence

Over the course of history, technology has enabled a smarter, more capable breed of worker. There’s no evidence that the technological revolution we’re currently navigating will be any different.

Yes, we’re looking at a future where simple job tasks will be automated. But, we’re only talking job tasks, not entire occupations, and only those tasks that are very routine and predictable in nature. Any job function that involves human interaction, such as managing others and applying expertise, are less susceptible to automation.

This automation will clear a path for a new world of augmented intelligence, aided by the very technology people are fearful of. It will be a world where employees are faster, smarter and more productive, adding greater value to customers.

A report from the International Data Corporation (IDC) reinforces that AI will unleash unprecedented levels of workplace productivity, boost global revenues by $121 billion over the next five years and generate more jobs than it will replace.

We’re already seeing this take affect. If you look at the rise in online shopping and the impact this is having on bricks and mortar retailers, you might think it’s destroying jobs. But an academic study in the United States shows we’re creating seven times as many jobs in the new online distribution sector as we're losing in the traditional retail industry – and these jobs are higher skilled and better paid.

In a snapshot, the future world of work looks like:

The rise of the independent worker

Also having a big impact on the future of work is the rise of the independent worker. This will change the makeup of the workforce considerably in coming years.

There’s three main factors driving this trend:

  1. Businesses need to be much more flexible. With rapid changes in market demands and technology, organisations need to be adjusting their labour force accordingly.
  2. Younger workers, in particular, are less interested in lifetime work. Millennials want flexibility in their careers and value work/life balance. They also don’t trust big business. They’ve been impacted by the GFC, experiencing redundancies and pay freezes, and no longer believe in job security.
  3. Technology is enabling people to connect easily and cheaply. The advent of platforms like Airtasker and Uber are allowing people who have skills or assets to connect with people who want to use those skills or assets like never before.

The ability to re-learn is key to career prosperity

In a dynamic jobs market, re-education is critical. Futurist Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” I wholeheartedly agree.

We know we need to work for longer than previous generations, and this means we’ll need to transition between careers if we want to remain employable. Fortunately, resources are available to do this, with new modes of learning emerging, like MOOCs, Coursera and Salesforce’s Trailhead.

AS well as the ability to re-learn, emotional intelligence is absolutely critical to ongoing career success. The ability to work well with others is becoming more important than what you know.

Where the jobs of the future will be

The World Economic Forum recently found that 65% of primary school children are likely to find themselves in roles that do not yet exist. So what are these new jobs? Here’s a few possibilities:

  • Robot trainers – robots can’t just be programmed, they need to learn and observe behaviours to replicate them. We’ll need people to teach robots these skills.

  • Drone specialists – with drone usage taking off, we’ll need skilled drone pilots, managers and maintenance staff.

  • High level advisors – life has become very complex, which means there’s a need for people who are skilled in gathering information, listening to customers, interpreting their needs and providing advice.

Uncertainty is your friend

There’s confidence to be gained from accepting uncertainty – denial breeds anxiety. I encourage everyone to recognise that the world of work is changing, be flexible in that, accelerate your re-learning process and know we can adapt as a society – because we’ve done it many times before.

If you're learning new skills, expanding your capability and seeing new possibilities, then uncertainty around the future of work becomes your friend.

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