Published in Dagens Industri, 2017
The debate about robots taking our jobs away sometimes sounds like an automation apocalypse. Yuval Harari, the author of Homo Deus, believes that we soon will have a “useless class” who cannot work at all, and researchers report that it is possible to automate half of all jobs. The fact that robots and artificial intelligence can replace our livelihoods is scary. Unemployment is the question we now worry most about in the world, according to a survey by Ipsos.
However, we should focus more on reinventing professions than discussing those that will disappear. According to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, it is necessary to restore the “rationalized” workforce to value-added professions at the same rate that we drive automation. Competitiveness is increasing and public spending can be streamlined by automation, but it’s not enough to maintain our desired growth rate. For companies, the efficiency gains are obvious; for society as a whole, the effects are more complicated. As the population grows older, the dependency ratio is increasing at a rapid pace. We cannot afford to put people out of work.
It’s hard to predict what the jobs of the future will be, but we have to start piecing the puzzle together. We know that there will be a great demand for the kind of digital competence that makes computers and robots do what we want, as well as a continued demand for creative and caring professions that can still demand skills that computers (as yet) cannot. All other jobs will have less value. According to Gartner, 45 percent of the fastest growing companies will soon have more smart machines than employees. We will need to learn to work side by side with the robots. In Sweden, we already have problems with an educational system that does not keep pace with the changes in the world. According to UKÄ (the Swedish Higher Education Authority), only one third of the areas of study in Sweden have a balance between labor market demand and the number of graduates. And the impact of automation still has not hit with full force. (For example, the Authority does not recognize that there is a lack of so-called “computer studies” students, though the rest of the world is screaming for them).
We can also prepare ourselves by increasing the flexibility and furthering the education of the labor force. Self-employed people in a gig economy, where digital service platforms can effectively get supply and demand to meet, may be the buffer we need for a more fluid labor market. Perhaps we need a national program for the upgrading of competencies, which would be based on the increasing availability of data on how professions arise, change and disappear. In Australia, it is estimated that within 2-5 years 90 percent of the labor force will need fewer, simpler skills, while 50 percent will need more advanced technological ones. Companies can be incentivized to take greater responsibility for creating employable employees. In the US, AT&T has made an enormous contribution to society by sending all 247,000 employees to training in data analysis.
Concerns about unemployment can easily be translated into protectionist solutions that provide the illusion of making a country “great again” – but such solutions are not built for the future. Sweden has many strengths to offer the future labor market. Our free universities will be a definite asset once they are re-organized to better balance the need for new skills and offer programs for lifelong learning. If we continue to build on our history of award-winning expertise in the areas of design and creative services using technology, and with new, flexible working methods, a culture based on collaborative problem-solving, and good old-fashioned teamwork rather than hierarchical disciplinary thinking, we will be even more unique.