Technology to push middle class out of work?

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, has given a stark warning at the World Economic Forum in Davos: that technology is replacing middle class jobs and, further, that it’s not certain that displaced workers will have the right skills to be re-hired. It will be, he says, a “defining” problem for the next two to three decades.

In other words, as he pointed out, this is a situation similar in nature to that which changed the face of work during the industrial revolution: then, huge numbers of working class jobs were lost as machines capable of milling, spinning, digging and hauling at a far greater pace, and far more economically, took over; now, automated systems in banking, retail, design, manufacture and all points in between have moved the machines up the value scale so that the more-skilled jobs are at risk. In addition, advances in technology which enable people to communicate more effectively and efficiently also, in theory, displace jobs as greater efficiency = fewer people required in order to produce the same output.

My job is to help people to communicate more effectively, and by implication more efficiently. There is a difference, but in practical terms it’s more about ethos: if a business wants its people to be more effective, then they want to do more with the same workforce. If they want their people to be more efficient, then (perhaps) they are hoping to do the same amount but with a smaller workforce. A group of people who find a way to do their job more effectively will be doing their job better, getting greater results. That probably means they’ll work faster, or produce work of better quality. A business which produces better quality (better quality designs, better written documents, more information-rich “stuff) should be more successful in a market where consumers/clients have choice. This doesn’t necessarily have to translate into job losses though, it all depends upon what the business does: not all businesses have a model which grows (my local Tesco, for instance, may already be selling all the groceries needed in the town so they could consider that one way to make more profit might be to reduce headcount).

What about job displacement though?

When I look around me at the world, I don’t think to myself “We’re doing all that needs to be done.” Do you? Only if you can answer a definite “yes” to that question should we begin to think that more effective working has to mean job losses in the sense of an increase in the jobless total.

In fact, when I look around me I see a tonne of stuff that needs doing. I see software that is lacking features which would make it brilliant, I see people in all walks of life whose world view, and hence capacity for effective decision-making, is limited by a lack of time to assimilate information. People in pretty much all jobs are just too busy. I see smelly public toilets and litter-strewn roads and public spaces. I see peeling paint. I see pot-holes.

So I do agree with Schmidt that technology is pushing the middle-class out of jobs. It’s pushing all classes out of jobs, but as the middle class is the big one these days of course that’s where it hits most – as if that fact mattered a damn.

But this isn’t a technology problem, it’s a social problem. And I believe that technology holds the solution.

We place high value on certain jobs, a value which I suggest is skewed by our societal perspective and by global governmental actions. For instance, food ought to be one of our most valuable resources (it’s pretty important) yet global governments continually devalue it through subsidy. Look around you at the jobs which friends and family do, at the job that you yourself do, and consider whether, if pay was related to worth, the rates would stay the same. Worth, the value of the actions of an individual, is such a hard thing to measure that perhaps we shouldn’t be measuring it at all? I know that “Trading Places” isn’t a documentary, but hands up anyone who doesn’t think there’s even a shred of truth behind the fiction.

The reason for diverting onto the subject of “worth” is to point out that it may not be necessary to engage a person in one role on a permanent basis. A person who just sells sausages might find their life more fulfilling if they just did it for a few hours a week, spent a few hours gardening in the local park, a few keeping the park toilets in order, and a few more painting window frames. Or some other random or self-governed mix of tasks.

In other words, there are lots of jobs which need doing but we as a society place so little value on some of them that they either don’t get done at all, they get done badly, or they get done by someone who feels undervalued by society. This article in the Guardian, and also this one, both look at how people are motivated and it’s either not what you first thought, or blindingly obvious, depending upon your current experience. The upshot of plenty of research (like this) is that people will work hard at tasks which they believe in, especially if they feel they’re providing value (a view influenced by how they perceive that other people perceive their value). Money actually isn’t the major motivator we think it is (once we have enough for the usual basic needs).

I said that technology holds the solution, and here’s why. People have skills, and people can learn skills – at varying rates and to varying degrees of proficiency. So when a task needs doing, in deciding who to engage to do it we need to look quite deeply at what the task is, what skills it requires, and who has those skills or could acquire them sufficiently in the appropriate time. In today’s world, we have monolithic organisations which have their own groups of employed and contracted workers and the choice is made from that fairly small pool. Not only that, the choice is made very much through a matter of proximity – tasks are generated and fulfilled by teams.

Technology can improve on this by helping to match tasks to people. It can be done in a variety of ways, and I mentioned in an earlier post Gary Alexander’s excellent book eGaia, which looks largely at local networks of people. Thinking local is essential, but there’s also a global angle.

In my book An Infinite Number of Monkeys, I wrote about a concept which I call the Agile Worker (others call it that, too, I don’t claim to have invented the term but it’s not always used in quite the way I use it). Agile workers are people with skills, in other words they are people. They are people who engage, generally, on a long-term basis with other people and organisations only in order to understand what the goals and habits of those other people are. They are available to do work, in line with their skills, on a completely ad hoc basis. In other words, organisations and individuals who have tasks which need doing can draw upon a global pool of talent. These talented people – in other words, people – will want to form long-term bonds with clients just like a lawyer or accountant does. Knowledge of how a client works vastly improves the chance of repeat work offers. But this works just as well for completely ad hoc work, where a task needs doing at a certain place or time by anyone who is capable.

Matching tasks to people is a horrendously complex job. Anyone who’s been through a hiring process also probably feels its so disconnected from reality as to be almost worthless. By automating the process, though, we can do a few extremely useful things:

  • Track an infinite number of agile workers.
  • Provide a means to monitor, record and present skills at a very fine level of detail through analysis of tasks performed, education achieved.
  • Offer a means for fair, honest and timely feedback.
  • Interface with project toolsets in order to automatically find people to fill tasks.

In an ideal world, every single person who wants to do any kind of activity would be on the system. If this sounds awfully like Big Brother then I think that’s simply a reflection of how we feel about our governments. The system I’m suggesting is not controlled by anybody, it’s completely open and users – as they’re increasingly able to on Facebook, Google+ and the rest – will be able to choose what clients can see about them. Of course, those who share most information might be more likely to be the recipients of tasks.

The great thing about this system is that it copes with every aspect of human endeavour. Whilst a sales engagement for an IT company who specialise in hospital security systems is pretty specialised and only a select few workers will be suitable, a ditch-clearing task might be one which could be done by any able-bodied person.

If you think that this is an completely off-the-wall idea then I agree that it is – today. However, what Schmidt is warning of is so blindingly obvious that it would be foolhardy to ignore it: technology is replacing jobs. People who are not working have to be supported somehow – unless you think they should be left to starve, which personally I don’t. Jobs are created by organisations with money and money comes from commerce, and another writing-on-the-wall aspect of human existence is that driving economies by consuming more and more in not a sustainable economic model. It’s put us in a position where people are almost automatically striving to gain wealth in order to almost automatically spend it, at the expense, perhaps, of their own personal goals and desires. It’s also led to a huge disparity between wealthy and poor: a hugely distorted distribution of wealth which, many of those who have been successful in the system would claim, maps directly to the amount of effort and ability shown by individuals (in other words, the wealthy deserve their wealth because they worked harder).  So why not switch to a system which cares less about the money and more about the tasks? In fact, once you have such a system in place it’s quite easy to replace money, in some circumstances, with barter – which is a much more effective way of exchanging value. Money has its place, but perhaps that place should not be right at the centre of our society.

So my key message is this: instead of using technology to drive people out of jobs we can, if we want to, use technology to put everyone into work doing the many, many things that need doing. It just requires a bit of agile thinking.

About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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