Beyond the end of work

Fears that new technologies will eliminate everyone’s jobs for the benefit of only a few are familiar. Similar concerns led to furious arguments two centuries ago, as industrialisation took hold in Great Britain. At the time, the term “industrial revolution” was not yet on everyone’s tongue: people talked instead about the “machine question.” In his 1821 essay “On Machinery,” economist David Ricardo worried about the “influence of machinery on the interests of the different classes of society” and the “opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests.”

Today the machine question is back, with a new twist. The implications of artificial intelligence (AI) are being hotly debated by technologists, economists, politicians, and philosophers alike. AI now threatens workers whose jobs had previously seemed impossible to automate, from financial analysts and lawyers to journalists. A widely cited study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University, published in 2013, found that 47% of jobs in America were at high risk of being “substituted by computer capital” soon – giving the long-discussed relation between capital and labour a new urgency.

Whether or not we all lose our jobs to robots, global mobility, social and demographic changes as well as new ecosystems and life philosophies will certainly lead to new roles and career models in the future. How are societies going to react? And how will the primary purposes in life change over time?

The average person now spends 100,000 hours at work over a lifetime. Work not only fills a large part of our individual lives, but often defines who we are. And even if we do not necessarily agree on what the future of work will look like, one thing is for sure: its character and meaning will change fundamentally, offering new opportunities and perspectives. The 48th St. Gallen Symposium will take up the theme of work under the title Beyond the end of work. We will tackle the issue by looking at the roles and responsibilities of individuals, societies, businesses and politicians.

Individuals’ mission: finding the right path

Career paths are changing. Graduates are turning away from traditional careers in banking or corporations and considering roles at start-ups, tech giants, and consultancies. When it comes to work models, disruptions in professional careers, frequent job changes and the growing popularity of temporary contracts are posing new challenges but also offering new opportunities to the individual. If we regard work as a primary purpose in life, the question of how a changing – or partially missing – work environment affects individuals’ perception of the meaning of life seems pivotal.

Society’s challenge: moving from a three- to a four-generation workforce

Changing demographics mean the advent of a four-generation workforce is set to change the workplace. There has been considerable focus on youth employment in recent years, but in some regions, demographics are such that the fastest-growing segment of the workforce is over 50. Sometimes, the older workers fill jobs that might have gone to a younger workforce. But whatever the careers of the future look like, eventually ‘retirement’ is inevitable. Even if the meaning of retirement is evolving, there will be the need for providing a vision and the steps to transition into a post-work life.

Business’s responsibility: staying agile and responsive

In order to tap new opportunities, preserve jobs and stay attractive as an employer, reacting to disruption by adopting new business models and embracing new technologies will be critical in the years to come. Moreover, finding, fostering and managing talent will be key in successfully adopting to a new work environment. Nevertheless, the private sector is continuously creating more value with less working hours or a smaller workforce. What responsibilities does it bear when it comes to today’s workers as their jobs shrink or disappear?

Politicians’ duty: providing the right environment

Education is vital for the continuing prosperity of present and future generations. Therefore, redesigning education systems and including lifelong learning opportunities must be a priority around the globe. Second, finding the right political answers to new life courses will be just as important. How can states ensure the creation of jobs, beyond building bureaucratic systems themselves? How can they remain competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining jobs? And what will future tax and social welfare systems look like?

 

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