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The Future of Work: Is There a Real Issue?

July 21, 2019

McKinsey’s Global Institute is just the latest in a long stream of consultancy firms to publish research on the future of work. Like many others, it calls upon senior management to set up “systems and programs to help the tens of millions of people who may need to switch jobs or even occupations” as a result of automation. I am sure McKinsey will be delighted to assist such initiatives – for a substantial fee.

But is there a real issue with automation and to what extent does it truly demand urgent action and intervention?

History suggests otherwise

In a world where the past is increasingly dismissed or ignored, we are only too ready to believe that the challenges we face are somehow unique. Yet technological innovation is far from new. It stretches back across millennia and in every instance it disrupted old ways and demanded new skills and ways of working. Somehow, the world coped – even without the benefit of highly paid consultants. And it is my belief we will cope now because, just like in the past, change will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

This comment is not intended to belittle the massive impact that automation will have upon society and the workplace. It is more to point out that a) it will happen over time; b) humans are actually quite adaptive and c) many aspects of the impact are unpredictable – even to consultants.

A case in point 

Let’s take an example – the switch from steam power to electricity. The BBC is running an excellent series on 50 forces that shaped the modern economy. The adoption of electricity is one such force. Today, it seems obvious that any business would rush to use electric power in preference to steam. Yet that wasn’t the case in the 1800’s. Although electricity and electric motors started to become available in the early 1880s, twenty years later less than 5% of US factories were making use of them.

The main reason is that electricity was simply too disruptive. People couldn’t easily get their heads around the scale and nature of change, nor the benefits it might bring. Electric power demanded complete re-engineering of processes; redesign of production; new investment – and discarding existing investments; and new skills and working practices. Ultimately, it brought massive benefits to the world in terms of productivity, working conditions and costs. Yet it was many years before steam died out and in those years, people and society adjusted.
I understand that consultants want to make money and they often do this by generating fear of being left behind. But do they really have knowledge and programs that make a fundamental difference? Is there really any reason why the latest technological changes will be different from the evolution of the past, when consultants didn’t even exist?
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