The Future of Work

14 Nov 2017

Geneva, Switzerland

Event report

The ‘Future of Work’ discussion took place on 2 November 2017 at the Auditorium of The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID). Mr Ryan Avent, Senior Editor and Economics Columnist, The Economist, moderated the panel discussion and welcomed the audience by reminding them of the crucial impact that automation will have on the job market.

The discussion was launched by Dr Richard Baldwin, Professor of International Economics, IHEID, who considered what kind of impact technology will have on economic growth in the upcoming years. He affirmed that figures do not point towards an optimistic future: in the past information and communications technologies (ICTs) (i.e. automation) have mainly affected the manufacturing sector; however, recently technology has come to affect the service sector where it is estimated that about two-thirds of people are employed. Moreover, job replacement in the service sector will be faster in pace when compared to the manufacturing sector. He then argued that this phenomenon is already occurring in specific sectors, such as the web development sector where remote working (i.e. ‘telecommuting’) is already possible. In these cases, most the work carried out is domestic.

Dr Baldwin stated that such an impact is certainly posing challenges on two grounds. On the one hand, we need not to forget the consequences at a society level: there is the danger of a popular backlash blaming the job losses on technologies (rather than on countries’ policies). On the other hand, not the whole service sector will be automated. Artificial intelligence (AI) is actually ‘almost intelligence as computers can recognise common patterns; hence, some functions of the service sector (e.g. parking a car) will be difficult to automate. Moreover, computers can ‘learn’ only when clear, sufficient sets of data are available. An example of this aspect is Swedish-speaking robot ‘Emilia’ which is not able to speak Swedish dialects because of the lack of sufficient data. The limit of machine-learning is represented by uncertainty and unpredictability which results, in job market terms, in soft skills.

Finally, Dr Baldwin asked the audience whether job loss caused by automation, and job creation due to reconfiguration of the market, will result in a zero-sum effect. The answer to this question varies depending on economies. Regarding developing countries, the main drive is currently economic growth characterised by industrialisation following the value chain and agglomeration economy (e.g. ports, roads), and emerging markets will be spreading more with a micro perspective. Concerning developed countries, the perspective is not optimistic as automation is causing big disruption with numerous backlashes (e.g. regulations regarding Uber and Airbnb). In the longer run, such economies will see a constant readjustment of job skills (e.g. shorter training spans) with more focus posed on non-automatable skills (e.g. soft skills).

Avent opened the panel discussion by asking the panellists three provoking questions.

1. What would happen if 50% of the workers went to the gig economy?

Ms Linda Kromjong, Secretary General, International Organization of Employers (IOE), asserted that that scenario will not be ‘as big of a change as we think’, considering that we are already working in a gig economy. The core element will be the pace with which the job market will adjust to the economy’s configuration which will depend solely on countries. She stressed that the key words are agility and flexibility. For example, considering workers’ high mobility, she suggested that pensions and security systems should be linked to the people rather than being linked with the country of work.

Mr Lawrence Jeff Johnson, Deputy Director, Research Department, International Labour Organization (ILO), stressed more the workers’ perspective during the job market reconfiguration. He considered that currently five billion people are economically active but about 1.5 billion are considered to be ‘vulnerable workers’ and will eventually be struck hard by automation processes. Moreover, when talking about such a phenomenon, he remarked that there is always uncertainty in referring to the exact time in which such a backlash and market configuration will happen.

2. What would happen if robots took 60% of the jobs?

Ms Shea Gopaul, Executive Director, Global Apprenticeships Network, considered that there will be ‘new colours jobs’: as part of the job market adjustment, new skills will emerge and be required and consequently new positions will be created or readjusted.

Kromjong maintained that job markets have always been under constant readjustment vis-à-vis technology changes, but in the case of automation also management positions will need to be monitored closely.

Johnson focused on the governance aspect, arguing that automation forces us to think how to ensure that such rapid change will not completely disrupt the job market. As in the past, also now there are some professions that are forced to confront decline (e.g. attorneys) and some others a change in nature (e.g. from secretary to assistant).

3. What would happen if all courses moved online?

Dr Baldwin drew attention to the process of active learning: education is not merely a matter of assimilating concepts, but the social component is key. He recognised that online learning would impact negatively on middle-level universities; however, high level academic institutions will still gain from it as the focus is on networking and formation of intellectual groups.

Kromjong agreed with Dr Baldwin’s argument: e-learning is an important driver in education, but it will never replace human interaction. Moreover, if all courses moved online, the digital divide would seriously hinder the goal of universal education accessible for all.

The session ended with consensus among the speakers on the fact that in spite of e-learning’s significant advantages, the importance of human interaction and team skills cannot be replaced and/or taught online.