We can’t predict the future, but we can help prepare those who will work in it

We can’t predict the future, but we can help prepare those who will work in it

Professor Alwyn Louw; President and Academic President; Monash South Africa

For most people, the year 2028 seems like the very distant future.

But when you consider that 18 years have already passed since the prospect of a new millennium had the world in a panic over what would happen to their computers and data, the next 10 years is sure to fly by at a similarly eye-watering pace.

Interestingly, while the number of days per year is never going to change, the pace at which the world changes every day is guaranteed to keep accelerating. And while it’s possible that predictions of driverless cars, wearable cellphones, and voice controlled appliances will have become our lifestyle realities in 2028, the one area in which complete transformation is guaranteed is the world of work.

Thanks to a combination of elements, not least of which are rapid technological evolution, massive urbanisation, and fast-diminishing energy, water and food resources, the relationship between industry and broader society is set to quickly and radically change.

This is the true impact of the so-called fourth industrial revolution. Not just that the role of technology is growing; but that this increasing technological impact demands a completely new way of thinking about the work we do, and the impact we have on society through it.

Of course, it’s very difficult to contemplate this future when we can’t really define it. For example, it’s been posited by numerous trend analysts that the hottest, most sought-after jobs in 2028 don’t yet even exist.

Then there are the other transformative forces that will shape the way we work in a decade’s time, the most notable of which are almost certain to be the prioritisation of innovation over function; the massive growth of large corporations, but the shrinking of physical work spaces as remote and contract employment arrangements reduce on-site staff counts; and the rising importance of social and environmental sustainability commitments as the essential cornerstones of employee, employer, customer and investor value propositions.

Most analysts broadly agree that these workplace changes are inevitable, but the one area in which futurists appear unable to reach consensus is whether or not the stellar advances in artificial intelligence and automation will mean that, in 10 years’ time, robots are performing the majority of functions currently done by humans in the workplace.

While this is understandably a source of worry for those who feel their roles could be done by robots, the fear of robotics advances is typically tempered by the argument that the rise of technology and artificial intelligence will, in fact, create untold new work opportunities. These will, however, be very different in shape, form and function from the jobs most people currently hold.

All of this begs the question: How can the learners and students of today ensure that they are prepared for future work roles that can’t yet even be clearly defined? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

There’s also no denying that universities, governments and employers have a vital role to play in helping today’s students become tomorrow’s thriving employees, managers and leaders.

The first, and arguably most important step towards delivering on that responsibility is to focus less on leveraging technology and automation as merely a means to greater profitability, and more on how the workforce of the future might engage with technology for the mutual benefit of corporations and society.

Ultimately, it matters little what the world looks like in 10, or 20 or even 100 years’ time. What’s really important is that the people who live and work in that world have been equipped to stay firmly in touch with their human-ness.

So, while robots may be doing a lot of the work, and the concept of full-time employment for life will probably have become somewhat archaic, the focus of the workplace should, and will, always be on people. More specifically, that focus will need to be on how to best equip and enable employees to engage with technology to achieve the types and levels of outputs that we probably cannot even contemplate today.

This means that preparing today’s young people to be productive employees tomorrow requires a shift in education focus, and employment criteria, from purely academic-based learning outcomes to the demonstrable ability to access and leverage knowledge, acquire, adapt and grow skills sets, and engage meaningfully with others and the world at large.

Because, while competition, capitalism and commoditisation may well be at all-time highs by 2028, an agile and innovative human workforce, with a sincere commitment to ethics, sustainability, fairness and the greater good, will ultimately always differentiate the successful future organisation from the failed one.

By Professor Alwyn Louw; President and Academic President; Monash South Africa

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