Man versus robot: Will your job still exist in 2030?

My son has just started High School. It’s been a tumultuous experience for him and for us, and it’s only going to get more challenging – and, we trust, more rewarding – from here.

A decided upswing in the tempo of his education starts now. And the idea of “what I want to do when I grow up” is making its move from the realm of dreams to the world of work.

This was the theme of the farewell speech my son’s Primary School Principal delivered last year, and the Principal of his High School delivered exactly the same message on Day 1, 2016:

“Most of the jobs your kids will perform are yet to be invented,” she said. “So all we can do as educators is give them the skills they need to become good problem solvers, and to be adaptable to change.”

As if on cue, ever since those words were uttered a flood of new research has engulfed my news feeds. Digest this snapshot:

  • In January, a paper by Citibank and the University of Oxford concluded that 35% of jobs in the UK are at risk of being replaced by automation – a figure exceeded in the US (47%), the OECD as a whole (an average of 57%) and in China (77%);
  • The World Economic Forum released a report in January suggesting the “rise of robots” will cause the loss of more than 5 million jobs across 15 major developing and emerging economies by 2020;
  • CEDA last year predicted that more than 5 million jobs have “a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years due to technological advancements” in Australia alone – that’s 40% of the jobs that exist today;
  • NSW Parliamentary Research Report has just replicated CEDA’s 40% figure within NSW;
  • A CSIRO/Australian Computer Society (ACS) report released last weekend found 44% of Australian jobs to be under threat from computerisation and automation in the next 20 years; and
  • A Deloitte Access Economics survey last week reported that 67% of its Australian respondents expect their existing job will no longer exist, or will require a new skill set, within 15 years.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

Are we looking at a doomsday scenario here? Or are those of us in the midst of our careers just going to have to “become good problem solvers, and to be adaptable to change”, like my son and his schoolmates?

The conclusions of the above-listed researchers vary, but there are some consistent themes.

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Perhaps of greatest concern is the suggestion that, while technological advancement will primarily come at the cost of low-skilled jobs, it will likely replace those jobs with high-skilled roles. As such, the re-training task for the disenfranchised represents a major challenge.

It’s little wonder then that the Citibank/Oxford report emphasises the importance of investment in education to stave off widening inequality.

The CSIRO/ACS report underlines the need to “upskill our current workforce so they can anticipate the jobs of the future” – jobs it says will demand more people with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) knowledge.

As Ai Group has long been highlighting, the supply of Australian students bringing these skills into the workforce is simply not meeting demand.

According to CSIRO and ACS, the current generation of school children will need to become “creative and entrepreneurial”. As ACS CEO, Andrew Johnson, said at the report’s launch:

“We need to focus on giving our kids the ability to go and create their own jobs in the future, rather than having the expectation that big business will be there when you leave university or school.”

Young people certainly seem to have belief in their ability to achieve success; the Deloitte survey reported the curious finding that, on average, employees with less than five years in the workforce “think they will retire at the age of 52”.

Deloitte gently suggests that “policy makers may need to adjust the expectations of younger workers”, given a reality of “increasing costs of retirement, the smaller workforce and pressure on government budgets”.

And with respect to the people who may find themselves delivering such a wake-up call, my son’s school Principal will no doubt appreciate the question posed in the report’s Foreword:

“Are school curriculums up to the task of teaching transferable skills and a different mindset about the future world of work?”

She tells me they are – and she’s excited at the prospect.

But as a business accepting the graduates of our schools, universities and vocational training system into your fast-changing workplace, what do you think?

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Graham Turner
Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

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