Machines to Dominate Labor by 2025, New Davos Report Says

(CN) – Forecasting seismic and not-too-distant changes from a Fourth Industrial Revolution, a report Monday from the World Economic Forum says over half of all work tasks will be automated within the next seven years, affecting 52 percent of jobs by 2025, up from 29 percent today.

(Image from “The Future of Jobs Report 2018,” published on Sept. 17 by the World Economic Forum.)

“The inherent opportunities for economic prosperity, societal progress and individual flourishing in this new world of work are enormous, yet depend crucially on the ability of all concerned stakeholders to instigate reform in education and training systems … and existing social contracts,” said Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, in a preface to the 147-page report.

Schwab founded the Geneva-based nonprofit in 1971. Though the forum held its annual meeting back in January at a ski resort in Davos, Switzerland, the Sustainable Development Impact Summit is slated to kick off next week in New York City.

Researchers who put together the Future of Jobs report Monday conducted interviews with executives in charge of 15 million employees around the world. They say the responsibility will lie in part with these individuals to harness the power of ever-evolving technologies and make sure their workers are equipped for the changes.

The report highlights four technologies in particular — “ubiquitous” mobile internet, artificial intelligence, big-data analytics and cloud technology — as  industries that will have positive influences on the future of work. Significant threats to business growth include cyberattacks, climate change, aging societies and shifting legislation on migration, which can limit talent pools.

“Humanoid” robots, like C-3PO of “Star Wars” fame, are not predicted to take over the workforce in the immediate future, according to the report, though companies are expected to invest in similar technologies such as drones and stationary robots. Nearly half of employers expect automation to reduce the size of their workforces by 2022, the report found, though nearly 40 percent see an opportunity for more productivity, and over a quarter say they could create new jobs as a result.

The authors of the study quoted a set of estimates predicting net growth in job numbers, with a displacement of 75 million positions due to the “shift in the division of labour between humans and machines” but the addition of 133 million new roles. The study also points out that automation affects only specific job tasks rather than entire jobs, which it says has potential to free workers of the “need to perform routinized, repetitive tasks and better … use their distinctively human talents.”

“Human” skills such as critical thinking, negotiation and creativity will be more prized than ever in this new era, the researchers say.

They also predict that workers whose jobs don’t disappear will likely need to acquire new skills. By 2022, over half of workers will require what they call “reskilling” and “upskilling,” training they found employers are not all prepared to undertake. Only about a third of employers whose staffers are most at risk plan to train them for the work ahead, the study found, while two-thirds expect their employees to “adapt” and “pick up skills” as they go.

Kevin Desouza, a business professor at Queensland University of Technology, noted that minority, older and poorer workers — many of whom lack the protections to help them navigate an automated world – face particular danger from the changes.

“Simply put, the low-wage jobs are going to disappear,” Desouza said in an email. “In addition, there is limited opportunity, and even interest, in reskilling (or upskilling) workers who work in these jobs today.”

A nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Desouza also said it is necessary for both workers and employers to be proactive about preparing themselves for a changing workplace. Schools, labor unions and governments could all be important training collaborators.

“Governments that are not busy dealing with daily crises and distractions will have a better chance to think through and plan for the future,” Desouza said, highlighting awareness programs as one step forward.

“This calls for actually having dialogues and forums with citizens, communities, and enabling them to craft and co-create solutions that would make their communities more livable, just, resilient, and sustainable by leveraging emerging technologies,” he explained.

In summarizing his group’s report in the preface, Schwab wrote that collaboration and flexibility are key.

“Catalysing positive outcomes and a future of good work for all will require bold leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit from businesses and governments,” he wrote, “as well as an agile mindset of lifelong learning from employees.”

Desouza rejected the idea that technology might be changing so quickly that employers and civilians cannot keep up.

“I think the world has always changed and each generation has found it to be fast,” he wrote. “The trick today is that we are too distracted, impatient, and lack the level of persistence needed to address anything in a serious manner. My suggestion is always the same – stop moving from one fad to the next. … If you keep running from fad to fad or one tech disruption to the next, you will always be reactive.”

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