The Fourth Industrial Revolution – will it spell the end of your job?

When we looked last week at the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we saw that it encompasses a range of technologies and activities, from the Internet of Things (IOT) to Siri on your iPhone or Alexa on Amazon, offering to help you find what you need. But while many people are excited by these technological advances that make life easier and in some ways more fun, at the same time the threat of automation has created very real anxiety amongst workers, particularly at the medium- to low-skilled end of the spectrum, who fear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution may be the catalyst that shifts them permanently into the unemployment line.

These concerns are valid. If a task can be performed by a robot at low cost, and the robot does not experience fatigue, anger, frustration or human frailty, why wouldn’t the activity be ultimately assigned to the robot? After all, the eight most common causes of workplace accidents are:

  • Fatigue
  • Lifting
  • Dehydration
  • Poor lighting
  • Hazardous materials
  • Acts of workplace violence
  • Trips and falls
  • Stress

A robot is immune to all of these, thus the cost of time lost to injury goes down, as well as the cost of any compensation, and productivity and profits go up…a shareholder’s dream. Quality of output is entirely consistent, unlike human productivity. In addition, gone is the need for HR intervention in shop floor conflict, or time-consuming negotiations with unions. Automation would seem to be capitalism’s panacea.

Stop right there

Fortunately, the vast majority of companies are motivated by more than the profit motive. There are other values that drive business. And humans are not as replaceable as this simple scenario suggests. In fact, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, less than 5% of all occupations can be automated entirely. About 60% of occupations have around 30% of activities with the potential for automation. So a human operator will still be needed, and arguably by automating the most mundane aspects of the job, the individual will be freed up to develop ability at the upper end of the task skill curve. It is more likely that jobs will change than that they will be entirely replaced by automation.

Think of the medical profession. Keyhole surgery, robotics, exoskeletons, disinfectant robots – all these advances remove an element of risk in medical care or introduce an innovation that improves patient care. But it is unlikely we will ever eliminate the need for a trained, skilled healthcare worker to diagnose and interact with patients. Technological tools enhance…they don’t replace the care provided by humans.

Candidates for automation

According to McKinsey, the activities most suitable for automation involve physical activities in structured, predictable environments. Data collection and processing, more and more a part of our world with the rise of “big data”, is also ripe for automation. These types of activities are most commonly found in manufacturing, accommodation and food service, and retail trade. More than two decades ago the motel chain in France, “Mr Bed”, offered an after-hours check-in service that required no human intervention. Guests arriving late at night punched information into a keypad, such as length of stay and number of guests, followed by credit card details, and were issued a receipt containing two numerical codes – one for the front door and one for the room. There was no need to check out in the morning as the bill had already been paid. This was a very low-tech version of automation but shows the potential within certain industries to maximise what technology can offer. No one worried then that jobs were being replaced; employees were more grateful to be relieved of the graveyard shift. Airlines have had self-service check-in desks for decades, more recently supplemented by online check-in. These are examples of automation; yet no one fears that the airlines will do away with employing human beings. Someone still has to check that your passport is in order and make you pay for your one kilogram of excess baggage!

Skill-biased automation

It is not only lower-skilled jobs and workers that will bear the consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the medical field as well as engineering, biotechnology, materials science, 3-D printing and others, technological advances will require similar development of skills and expertise. This is what McKinsey calls “skill-biased” automation, where the jobs of highly skilled workers become more complex and more productive while at the same time the demand for lower-skilled jobs decreases. Some jobs may disappear, to be replaced by automated processes, but other jobs will emerge as operators for those machines and processes are needed, along with technicians to analyse and interpret the data produced (because all processes produce data now). Yes, these new roles will require higher levels of skills than the preceding manual tasks, but, rather than being a threat, this can be seen as a massive opportunity for an entire cohort of workers to learn new skills and enter a level of the workforce previously virtually inaccessible, particularly young people who have grown up with and are entirely comfortable with new technology.

How long will this take?

The speed and pace of change will vary enormously from industry to industry and from country to country. Here in South Africa, where we still have a large proportion of unskilled workers, we sit in the comfort of our vehicles while a petrol pump attendant fills the tank and cleans the windscreen. In Europe and the US, drivers have had to brave the elements and fill their own tanks for years, simply inserting a credit card into a slot on the pump for payment, as it is much harder to fill low-paying jobs in more developed economies.

McKinsey estimates that half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, but that estimate could vary by 20 years either way, depending on various factors as well as wider economic conditions. Another global economic shock, such as what happened in 2008, could significantly impede the progress of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as funds for technological investment dry up or are diverted to more pressing needs.

A shifting labour force

In some senses, the Fourth is not so different from the First, Second and Third Industrial Revolutions, as all of them resulted in the elimination of some jobs and the creation of other, previously unforeseen occupations. In the era of a largely agricultural society and cottage industries, who could have imagined steam-powered factories or assembly lines? Before the 1970s, who could have predicted the omnipresence of the computer in businesses of every description? Yet labour forces have adapted and evolved. Those displaced by automation will find other forms of employment. The world of work as we know it will change, but it will not end.

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