Take a cold, hard look at the future of work

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past — George Orwell

Just what is the future of work? To find out, let’s take a look at the appeal of the reality TV show The Apprentice. It offers a glimpse of the horror of getting fired. But we’re going to have to get used to it, due to the rise of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The future of work — getting fired

Getting fired is a disaster that can take longer to recover from than either:

  • divorce, or
  • the death of a spouse.

There can never be a good way to fire someone. It is a horrible thing to endure and only a psychopath could enjoy doing it.

For this reason, I agree with the approach taken by the online entertainment company Netflix. They view their employees as a team, not a family. People are automatically shown the door if they fail its keeper test. This, simply put, is whether, as a manager, you would try hard to keep someone from leaving for another company. If the answer is no, they will offer an adequate performer a generous severance package. Then they will find a star replacement. This approach has two big advantages:

  1. It treats staff like grown-ups
  2. It is honest about an unavoidable truth. This is that firms do not exist to make life joyful for their employees.

But I doubt if this will be the future of work. Indeed, even this approach could soon be a thing of the past?

Risks from automation

For a glimpse of the future of work, look to Greater Manchester. This is where the retail firm Shop Direct runs three big distribution and returns centres. It plans to shift the operation to a new, automated site. And that would mean the loss of 1,177 full-time posts and 815 roles performed by agency workers. Yet, it’s only a tiny fraction of the job losses set to follow. Jobs in wholesale and retail account for 15% of UK workers. And the trade is rapidly migrating front the high street to vast automated fulfilment centres like the new John Lewis campus near Milton Keynes. This is a deserted hall full of 860 robots. In fact, over the next 15 years and across the UK economy as a whole, more than ten million jobs could be at risk from automation.

It’s a trend that calls for a total overhaul of our welfare system. This does almost nothing to encourage people to get new skills. Rather it works on the expectation it can push anyone who’s jobless into exactly the kind of work that’s under threat. This is the future we haven’t planned for. One where we can fire a robot with no guilt; machines don’t care.

Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

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Robert Thompson

Robert Thompson

Big ideas and important articles. Writing to help you make sense of the world. And cope with being human.

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