We are at a crossroads. The economy is largely paused and more people than at any point in history are either working from home, or not working at all. As a society, we now face a stark choice. We can return to what we used to call “normal” - to the longest working hours in Europe, to record levels of insecure work and to a growing mental health crisis - or we could use the lockdown as an opportunity to create a “new normal”.
The lockdown, and long-term social distancing measures, are likely to hasten a number of more immediate and visible changes. Remote working is no longer a fringe idea adopted only by the more forward thinking employers. Previously resistant bosses can no longer claim it cannot happen as employees will be able to point to lockdown as evidence they should be allowed to do it more often. But employers are likely to increasingly embrace the concept as a means to reduce overheads. We’ll see fewer offices where each employee has their own designated desk. Instead, more office spaces will become centralised drop-in centres for hot desking, business meetings and collaboration.
As we now enter the deepest depression in a century, we’re about to witness labour market shifts beyond just the queues at job centres. We’re likely to see an explosion in the numbers working in the “gig economy” with more people than ever undertaking flexible, temporary or freelance work either through choice or necessity. Without a change in political ideology, it’s likely there will also be rapid growth in other forms of insecure work including zero hours contracts and so-called “self-employment” where employees are pushed off the payroll and hired as contractors instead.
But coronavirus isn’t the only thing forcing change on the world of work. As many as 47% of all jobs are at high risk of automation in the next 20 years according to the University of Oxford. Robots will be able to do our jobs for free, they won’t make mistakes, and they won't take sick days (unless they also get a virus!). This is one revolution that is already firmly upon us.
Jobs that are routine, repetitive and predictable are at the highest risk. Blue collar or white collar - the robots don’t care. For example, opticians check around 50,000 eyes on average in their career. But Kaggle have built an algorithm that can check millions of eyes in just a few minutes. J.P. Morgan recently launched an Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine that analyses financial deals. The machine now does in seconds what previously consumed 360,000 hours of their lawyers’ time annually.
Perhaps the most visible example is checkout operators, who are already rapidly being replaced by self-service machines, with the first checkout-free supermarkets already being piloted. Equally, Google’s self-drive cars have already racked up more than 10 million miles of fuel efficient, accident-free testing as truck and taxi drivers around the world can only watch on nervously.
The University of Oxford findings demonstrate that there is a strong correlation between two aspects of a job and its risk of automation: the amount of creativity and innovation required, and the amount of human interaction and understanding needed. So what can be done about the rise of robots? Well, as the Borg like to remind us: resistance is futile!
But the future doesn’t have to belong to the robots. We can embrace the change and allow the machines to take care of the more mundane and physically demanding tasks so we are free to focus on what is most important to us as humans: educating, feeding, entertaining and caring for each other, and focusing our ingenuity on tackling the problems we face as a society.
The lockdown has provided us with a unique opportunity to reconnect with these core aspects of human existence. People are getting used to spending more time at home with their family, focusing on self-development and personal pursuits, and taking an active involvement in their community. Helping one another is back in fashion and it seems even those in power have noticed there is such a thing as “society” after all.
Where many thought the lockdown would lead to a mental health crisis, we’re seeing a growing appreciation for a slower pace of life, and for our ‘smaller’ world that we’re all realising is actually bigger than we ever knew. Even some of those whose income has fallen are discovering that, in many ways, their life is now ‘richer’ than ever.
We are also witnessing a fundamental shift in the way we perceive value in the economy. The lowest paid jobs - the so-called “low skilled” workers - are now suddenly our most valued citizens. The much-maligned cleaners and carers and cabbies are now “heroes” of our time - and it’s causing people to reflect on the notion of meaningful work. After all, 37% of Brits believe they have a “bullshit job” that makes no meaningful contribution to the world at all.
As we emerge into a post-corona world, will we try to rekindle our broken relationship with work? Will we enter a battle with the robots that we ultimately cannot win? Or will we redefine the nature of “work” so that it works for us, allowing us to focus our efforts on more meaningful pursuits and rewarding us with time and energy to lead healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives?
The problem has always been the desire to change. Humans are poor at imagining and dealing with change. But now that change has been thrust upon us, the desire has been awakened. I suspect that, this time, there is no putting it back to sleep.