One of the early recommendations of this Taskforce was that a Future of Work unit be set up in the Department of Labour. The initial core group of the Taskforce were keen on the idea because they felt all leaders in our communities need to be better resourced with information on how the trends on work and income are progressing.
Well, a unit didn’t happen. Instead, the Ministers of Labour and Employment asked their existing policy section in the Department to look into the local and international literature. They came up with a discussion document, called Workforce 2010, which was published in March last year and described itself as “...a document to inform public debate on the future of the labour market in New Zealand.”
There was virtually no response in the media to the concept of a debate on these issues. There was very little political comment on the document apart from the initial Ministerial press statement. The columnists and commentators in the mainstream media ignored it. The whole thing very quickly joined the graveyard of other glossy government publications.
Which was a pity. A real public debate on employment issues and the changing nature of work is so obviously overdue ... and the Workforce 2010 exercise was a missed opportunity.
Part of the problem was the whole tone of the document. It seemed to be written for the Labour Department and political advisers rather than the general public. There was also no strategy for engaging public debate.
While it was full of the sort of up-to-date statistics and charts that prove to be very useful for people in this field ... its writers were painfully circumspect about what these signals and trends actually mean. And they avoided any comment or policy recommendations on the political choices inherent in employment trends.
One of the striking examples of this could be seen on the final page of the report where it concluded that “... the next ten years to 2010 will involve similar influences to the last ten years” ... with the current trends of globalisation, technology, demographic, social, and workplace changes continuing. It was if the writers were putting up a comforting sign saying: business-as-usual.
I would be the first to admit that predicting the future is a perilous business. And the report quite rightly points out that in recent years there have been widely divergent forecasts about the “future of work”.
This new century has not seen a widespread “end of work” as predicted by the popular authors Jeremy Rifkin and Vivianne Forrester in the 1990s. However, many elements of their concerns — such as a growing gap between “work rich” and “work poor” families, neighbourhoods, and communities — have certainly become a reality.
But it isn’t good enough for a document like Workforce 2010 to simply restate the status quo. The people of New Zealand deserve much more than a definition of how things are going to remain the same, especially if we sincerely want to spark a debate on how we should cope with the sort of rapid change that is obviously looming up in front of us.
There are a whole number of trends that we need to be paying attention to ... issues which need to be placed more prominently in the public mind.
The current problem with skill shortages is one of them. We didn’t get official reports ten years ago which warned of the huge number of skill shortages we are seeing today — particularly in the trades and on the farms. Yes, there were many people warning of the situation in the trades themselves, and in the rural community ... but there was no clarion call coming out of policy departments which would have put this issue on the political and public agenda.
The current skill shortages haven’t come out of nowhere. They are labour market problems that are already ten years old by the time we see their evidence in our communities. They are the consequence of us not investing —ten years ago — in the next generation of our workers.
Many sectors are experiencing boom times at the moment and they are either crying out for skilled people, or they are crying out for unskilled people who are willing to put in a good days work.
But these people don’t just arrive out of nowhere. They just don’t wait at home for the economy to get around to having a boom time. If there is no paid work, they either do something else ... or they sink into an underclass that develops multiple difficulties in remaining “work-ready”.
We know that, in the past 15 years, many larger businesses got out of doing any training in order to cut costs. The trend of sub-contracting everything out to smaller companies also meant that many of those smaller firms just didn’t have the economies-of-scale with which to carry a training function. They were operating on such small margins that they felt they couldn’t afford the time or the trouble.
In effect, whole industries were gambling on the chance that the skills they needed would turn up in the future or they would buy them in from overseas.
A lot of training also used to happen in the public sector ... and our current skill shortages are also related to the trend in “down-sizing” by government departments and local councils.
The Workforce 2010 document tells us that in 1989 both central and local government comprised 28% of the total share of employment. By 2000, the public sector share had shrunk to 19% — a remarkably large fall of over 70,000 people in just over a decade. This has had an obvious impact on skills training and retention.
During this decade, planners in the education and training sector seemed to be defaulting to the political ideology of the time, which said: “don’t touch”.
Now we are realizing that we can’t afford not to touch. We can’t afford not to take the time and trouble to invest in the next generation of our workers.
The current government, and the business community are now scrambling to get some sort of training strategy into place. This agenda will also wash up on the shores of local government: your councils will be challenged about what sort of training component you are providing within your own operations.
There are many other trends that we haven’t been facing up to. One of these involves the growing recognition that we are living in times in which business development and economic growth do not necessarily lead to the numbers of jobs that we would expect.
At the launch of the Mayors Taskforce in Christchurch in 2000, many of the Mayors expressed the reservations that their hard work in attracting new businesses to their regions will actually pay off in terms of the numbers of new jobs being created.
We have a long history of political and business leaders trumpeting the story that economic growth means more paid work for local people. Yet Chris Liddell, the Chief Executive of Carter Holt Harvey, wrote in a recent New Zealand Herald article that, for him, it was “sobering” to note that the ten largest corporations in the United States have five times the market capitalisation they did ten years ago, but they collectively employ fewer people.
Another growing trend can be seen in the rise in overwork. We might have one in eleven people looking for a job ... but the top 20% of people who are fortunate enough to be in paid employment seem to be working impossible hours. I’m sure we could solve a considerable proportion of our unemployment problems if we could convince enough hard-working people to just go home!
But perhaps the biggest megatrend we are facing has to do with the impact of new technology. Take the internet. It is stunning too see how rapidly this technology has been adopted. And it seems incredible to remember that, a decade ago, there were only a handful of websites from this country on the world wide web. Now it seems that you are not really in business until you have a website address on your business card.
A lot of the effects of the internet have been unanticipated. I am a subscriber to an email network called Futurework. It was set up in 1994 by the Faculty of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and has several hundred academics, researchers and enthusiasts on it. When I look back over the records of the conversations, papers and articles on that group from seven years ago, I can’t find anyone who was predicting that the hottest job in 2002 would be “website designer”.
In the 20th Century, the things that drove economic change — and created jobs —were based on electrical, chemical and nuclear technologies. What we know so far about the 21st century is that the driving technologies will involve computer power, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology (molecular engineering).
The important thing to understand is this: these technologies are self-accelerating. The current technological developments today are not happening steadily ... they are happening exponentially. This has an obvious effect on the pace of human history and our ability to control or predict what comes next.
Take information. Since 1984, we have produced and stored more information than was produced in the previous 6,000 years of recorded human history. And the time it takes to double the amount of information that human beings know about the world is getting shorter and shorter ... and will soon be less than a year. This is exponential change and we are really the first generation to have to come to grips with it.
You can see it in computer power: this has been doubling and yet getting smaller, faster, smarter and cheaper every 18 months. The same rate of development can be seen with biotechnology, which is going to have a huge impact on agriculture, nutrition and healthcare. It’s also happening in the fields of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. The overall pace of change just accelerates as these technologies start to have second and third level impacts on each other.
This acceleration has a driving hunger for skilled people: is it any wonder that many complain about being over-worked!
Are there any limits to this pace of change? We really don’t know.
Some futurists and trend-watchers refer to a concept called the “Singularity” when trying to describe what may happen in a world where multiple and successive technologies accelerate and converge. The term comes from Astrophysics, but many computer, technology and military planners have been applying the concept to human affairs.
What they propose is that instead of the capabilities of new technologies growing gradually over time, each new technology is becoming increasingly more powerful in a very short time-span. Innovations that formerly had taken years ... are being made in months.
The exponential crush of technological change starts to look, in the end, like a vertical line — a line they have dubbed the Singularity.
Beyond this point, our ability to predict the future simply breaks down and new models of understanding our world must be created.
The proponents of this concept even have something of a consensus date for when they think this Singularity will occur: 2035 ... give or take a few years.
This isn’t a comforting prediction ... and it certainly isn’t a picture of business-as-usual.
The fact that the future is increasingly unpredictable hasn’t stopped many leading corporations from having a go. Every 2-3 years, British Telecommunications (or BT) has produced a year-by-year timeline of when they expect technological breakthroughs to happen. These predictions are used by many people in business, government and the media.
The latest edition has just been published ... and it continues to give us both an exciting and a disturbing vision of our future.
Examples: By 2010, less than 20% of the UK workforce will be in manufacturing, and 25% of the workforce will be teleworking. Also by 2010, the highest earning celebrity will be synthetic. By 2015, desktop computers will be as fast as the human brain. By 2017, teachers with Artificial Intelligence (AI) will get better results than most human teachers. By 2025, the world will see its first nanotechnology accident.
A wise warning, however, comes from Paul Saffo, of the California-based Institute for the Future. He argues that futurists tend to overestimate how rapidly change is coming in the short term and they underestimate how much change is coming in the long term. Either our hopes or our fears lead us to overestimate the short term, and then when reality fails to conform to our inflated expectations our disappointment leads us to underestimate the long term.
So despite my criticisms, I actually have some sympathy for the cautiousness shown by the Department of Labour and its Workforce 2010 report.
As the Editor of The Jobs Letter, I have often been asked to give speeches on “the future of work” and I have tried to take up the slippery challenge of helping people make sense of what is happening in our communities, and what might be coming next.
But, more recently, I have come to the conclusion that when anyone talks to you about “the future of work”, what they say tells you more about them, and their world-view and their hopes and expectations ... than it does about any predictable future.
Actually, I am finding that it takes some courage to stand before an audience and say: “I really don’t know”.
This isn’t a form of modesty, or abandonment. It is just a frank way of suggesting that we are participating in a mystery ... and accepting that many of the elements that will make up this future are not under our control or prediction.
The BT timeline, and the metaphor of the Singularity, probably tell you something about the world-view, hopes and fears of the people who find such things so compelling.
They are also challenging us to consider many more “what-ifs” when thinking about “the future of work”.
And they are certainly sparking debate.
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