Over the last 250 years, technological advances have driven seismic societal changes. These periods of change are often called the First, Second, Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions, with each one causing an upheaval in the world of work.
The First Industrial Revolution, from around 1765, saw mechanised production from water and steam power and the mechanisation of the textile industry. The Second Industrial Revolution occurred between 1870 and 1914 through advances in the use of steel, electricity, gas and oil, resulting in mass production and the internal combustion engine. From the late 1960s, the Third Industrial Revolution witnessed computerisation and increased automation, embracing concepts such as robotics (the automation of repetitive tasks), digitisation (converting analogue data to a digital form), and digitalisation (using technology to transform business activity). And now, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on these advances by means of smart technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and greater interconnectivity. The scope of these advances promises to impact on all facets of life including popular acceptance of automated vehicles and potentially mass adoption of cryptocurrencies.
Notably, the gap between each Industrial revolution has reduced dramatically. The Third and Fourth Revolutions have led from one to the other seamlessly. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, is credited with having coined the term “Fourth Industrial Revolution” in 2016 and has characterised this period as having a scale, scope and complexity unlike anything humankind has previously experienced.
Each past Industrial Revolution saw jobs displaced by industrial or technological developments, but the changes also resulted in new jobs, many of which would have been unimaginable beforehand. These jobs arose both directly, as a result of the technological developments, or indirectly from the increased purchasing power and leisure time created by increased productivity and economic growth. Commentators are divided as to whether we will see this trend continue, with the creation of more and better jobs, or whether the scale, scope and complexity of the Fourth Revolution will mean it is different this time around.
AI - the simulation of human intelligence in machines - is not new but promises a transformative impact on the world of work. As machines take on more tasks traditionally done by people and increasingly perform functions going beyond human capabilities, few jobs appear safe from undergoing significant change or disappearing entirely in the face of automation. Workers will need to adapt and acquire new skills.
AI will also present fresh challenges, such as identifying and addressing the risk of discriminatory decisions and safeguarding individuals’ data privacy rights. Regulators have already issued guidance on the use of AI in employment. Trust and transparency will be key to overcoming “algorithm aversion”, but this antipathy may shift over time as evidence from other fields (e.g. aviation and healthcare) reveals “automation bias” – that is, over-reliance on machine-based decisions.
Increases in computing power will continue to be one of the most significant drivers of change in the world of work, creating great opportunities for employers and society generally. But equally, their scale, scope and complexity pose huge challenges. These opportunities and challenges are amplified by other drivers of change that are converging at this pivotal time. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the time his grandchildren had grown up they would be working 15 hours a week. This did not happen, of course, but could he ultimately be proved right and just be a generation or two out?
The way we engage with others in our personal or work lives, how we access knowledge and the way businesses communicate with their customers, markets and each other have been revolutionised over the last three decades. No doubt in 30 years’ time, communications will have developed in ways unimaginable today.
Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of plans to hire 10,000 employees in the EU to transform Facebook (now re-named Meta) into a metaverse company perhaps provides a glimpse of this unimaginable future. The metaverse represents a virtual reality space where users can interact with a computer-generated environment and with other users. The metaverse will incorporate the rapidly evolving technologies of virtual and augmented reality; cryptocurrencies and blockchain. It is easy to foresee the impact on employment and traditional jobs of users living their lives in a virtual world. Some new occupations may be created, in addition to the jobs created in developing the metaverse, such as metaverse stylist; metaverse lawyer; metaverse tour guide; and metaverse marketer.
Will the metaverse provide an opportunity for an employer to mitigate the downsides arising from a lack of in-person connection in a fragmented and hybrid-working workforce?
The transformative power of technology has been evident during the pandemic, as video-conferencing technology and faster broadband have enabled many to continue to work without interruption. Had Covid-19 happened only a few years earlier, the economic consequences would most likely have been far more severe.
One of most significant technological advances in recent years has been the power to accumulate and analyse data. Those of us living in the UK will not forget the government’s mantra “Data not dates”, which was continually repeated as the touchstone for decision-making throughout the pandemic.
Today, data drives the world and access to it equates to power. For many organisations, their overall worth is closely related to the value of the data they have amassed. Data rights will become an ever-more important aspect of employment protection as workers become increasingly aware and concerned about their privacy.
Data fraud and cyber-attacks are external threats that will increase in significance in the future, both listed among the World Economic Forum’s top ten global shapers in its 2020 Global Risks Report. This environment will also create new jobs as the steps to counter such threats move apace with the increased sophistication of the attackers.
Technological change will affect the how, how much, what, when, where and who of work.