How we can become future-proof foxes

Kiran Mathur Mohammed
Kiran Mathur Mohammed

We may be plugged in to all the latest whiz-bang gadgets, but we have not yet realised how quickly our working lives are about to change.

Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne first seeded the panic, announcing that 47 per cent of jobs could potentially be automated by the mid-2030s. Automation has proceeded at a brisk clip, particularly in the rich world. The OECD says 14 per cent of jobs across 32 of its countries are already highly vulnerable. Manufacturing, transport and public administration are particularly at risk, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Automation and globalisation have been a slow burn of wage stagnation and rising discontent across the Western world. They have fuelled the populist backlash led by Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and Boris Johnson.

Many people think it impracticable to take precious time from harassed and exhausted lives to learn new skills that may or may not be used. That is understandable. But it is dangerous.

That slow burn is speeding up. When an assistant in a former office was laid off, it came as a total surprise. By the time she noticed her bosses were using productivity apps and online schedulers themselves, it was too late.

The jobs that remain will be very different. The OECD reckons a full 32 per cent of current jobs will be totally transformed. But at least new productivity and prosperity will salve the lost jobs and higher inequality in more technologically advanced countries.

If developing countries fail to both adopt those technologies and adapt to them, they will still be hit by stagnant wages and job losses – but without the benefits of technologically-enabled growth.

We cannot wave Luddite pitchforks. Not only will we sacrifice growth, but we will sacrifice the delight and promise of new technology.

The fourth industrial revolution will free us from drudgery, from the repetitive and the boring. If we let it, it will free us to engage in creative, challenging thought and fulfilling work. If we can adapt, we will be happier than ever in our jobs. We will have more time for family and friends, for creativity and the arts, for philosophy and sport.

So what skills we will need?

Complex problem-solving and critical thinking are the two top skills required in 2020, according to employers surveyed for the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work report.

We will need to be able to work with machines and software easily and intuitively. But that does not necessarily mean learning to code. Prof Roni Rosenfeld, head of machine learning at Carnegie-Mellon University, said at a recent Amcham technology conference that we should instead learn how to understand and work with data and statistics. Machine-learning artificial intelligence is churning out new data that we can finally make sense of. These skills are most important during the transition phase during which technology is more enabling than transformational.

In the medium and long term, technology will make softer skills more and not less relevant, particularly creativity and teamwork, says PwC’s AI team. Real human interaction and negotiation will become more valuable, at the expense of mechanical tasks.

Interestingly, the industries PwC predicts will boom –health, education and scientific and technical services – require just this combination of soft skills and data analysis.

That said, what is needed is less a combination of specific skills and more a broader change in attitude if we are to future-proof ourselves. If there’s one thing experts can agree on, it is that we must continuously change and re-train throughout our working lives.

The philosopher Isiah Berlin famously categorised thinkers as either foxes, who knew many different things, or hedgehogs, who know one big thing.

The 20th century rewarded the hedgehog’s quiet mastery. But the tyranny of the hedgehog is over. Prominent Silicon Valley talent advisor John Sullivan was asked by The Atlantic correspondent Jerry Useem why anyone should take the time to master anything. He replied: “You shouldn’t!”

We must be light of foot. Continuously learning and adapting. Denmark’s strong emphasis on and funding of in-work training is helping to future-proof its own workforce: 70 per cent of Danes consider mid-career transitions a “good thing,” compared to 30 per cent in most European countries.

Our Government already offers a 150 per cent tax incentive for companies’ training expenses. The private sector should now step up and invest in their workers. It is to their own benefit.

Thanks to technology, we have the information at our fingertips. The internet, with its vast repository of free knowledge, can be a great leveller. Provided, of course ,we stop clicking on cute cat pictures – or cute foxes.

Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh


"How we can become future-proof foxes"

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