‘Changing nature of work’ is an Understatement if 47% of Job Roles are Going to Disappear in the Next 15 Years…. Or is it?

16 October 2014

The Economist ran an article a couple weeks ago about the changing nature of work  discussing some recent research by some prominent economists who predict that 47% of all job roles will disappear within 15 years. Some have commented that this is a rather dramatic development that will significantly impact the way we work and by implication, the way we train and manage. All true I thought and I must admit I had that instinctive reaction you get when you read stats like that – a flash in the pan like worry where you wonder how it will impact your future and if you have them, your kid’s future.

My next thought however was that this is nothing new – massive economic reorganisation has been going on almost continuously since the beginning of the industrial revolution (and for millennia before that, albeit less frequently). These kinds of stats are often presented in a very doomsdayish tone but what would you rather have – stagnation?

I don’t know if 47% is accurate (why not 46% or 48% – seems suspiciously precise) but I agree it’s a fair bet that a significantly large proportion of job roles will disappear in the face of economic and technological change. But this has been happening for the last 200 years! More importantly, change cuts both ways – it does not just destroy, it also creates. Just think of how many job roles have disappeared but have also been created in the last 20 years.

Have a look at that article if you can because the changes it refers to are coming to the employee benefits and HR industry. Automation via software is only going to push deeper and wider into most HR processes. Although the human touch will always be needed at some level, more of the decision making process and particularly the execution of decisions will become increasingly automated and self-service. But this is good – its progress and change and a better alternative to stagnation.

Should you be worried if you are in HR? Absolutely not – the appropriate reaction is to think how technology and automation can help you do your job better and more efficiently. More broadly, you need be able to manage for continuous change – it has to be a central part of your management style and strategy, part of your mind-set. This is not just good business practice, if history and the future according to the Economist are anything to go by, you have no choice.

Your job is to put yourself and your organisation into a position to deal with technological change, embrace it and leverage it. What else are you going to do?

I mentioned this to a colleague who asked me why I was not worried about the impact of 47% job roles going on myself or my kids. I told him people and societies adapt and hoping not to sound like some sort of war weary pub bore I said that I had already seen and done this. My 11 year old kid is learning how to code at school at an age when I had probably had never even seen a computer in the flesh. At that age the mere thought of having to learn to program a computer would have terrified me. And yet, by my early twenties I was a somewhat self-taught coder and was part of a generation that ‘retooled’ (adapted!) to computerisation in the 1990’s. My wife introduced e-mail to the company she was working for then having hardly used it herself before.  Vast numbers of job roles and whole industries disappeared in the 1990’s but many, many new industries, job roles and extraordinary opportunities were created. Those were boom times and the forces driving the next 47% are the similar if not the same as those in the 1990’s.

Change is always happening and humans are astonishingly good at adapting – the truth is, we thrive on it. We learn, we change, we move with the times and we’ve been doing it for millennia. The kids are going to be alright.

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