DAVOS — If robots, AI, nanotechnology, machine learning, and 3D printing are going to be doing all the work, what the heck will human beings do nine to five?
That was the front and center question of a panel I led at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. Titled, “Putting jobs out of work,” the panel—which I’m happy to report was full—included experts from around the world as we hashed out the nature and future of work.
The topic is actually at the very core of the work, (so to speak) of the World Economic Forum, not just now, but over its 48-year history and likely for years to come. Jobs and work of course are also at the root of so much socio-economic and political change around the world. Trumpism, Brexit and economic nationalism are in part a reaction to the dislocation and anxiety that accompanies this change.
Of course, technology and the digital revolution are the proximate causes of all this. How do individuals and institutions—companies and government—manage this disruption?
First, to get some background I asked Yuval Noah Harari, professor of history at the University of Jerusalem, and author of the highly-regarded book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” about the history of work.
“For many years, humans didn’t work,” he said. “They survived. Jobs are a modern notion. Anxiety about losing jobs is also nothing new.”
Harari points out that for the past two centuries, people have been predicting that machines were taking over. This time “it might be true,” he says. “Like the guy who cried wolf, eventually the wolf really came.” Meaning that the magnitude of adoption and the sophistication of machines today is such that a huge swath of jobs really is threatened. Indeed, McKinsey estimates that over the next decade or so, one third of all workers in Germany and the U.S. may need to find work in new occupations.
“I think we’re facing a crisis we aren’t talking about,” says Arlie Hochschild, longstanding professor of sociology at Cal Berkeley, and author of “Strangers in Their Own Land,” a book about working class whites in Louisiana.” Hochschild said that neither the political left or right was saying automation is here and that we need to address it with say continuing education. “My fear is that political leaders will use that anxiety that crisis creates to blame people who are not at fault like blacks and immigrants.”
Vijayakumar, CEO of HCL Technologies, an Indian-based outsourcing firm, disputed Harari fears. “If you look at this problem and focus on the technology industry, the wolf is not going to come,” he said looking at Harari. Vijayakumar’s point is that there are simply not enough skilled workers to fill all the jobs required in IT. “There are probably a million jobs in the technology sector that aren’t getting filled with the right level of talent,” he said.
Mary Flanagan, an interdisciplinary artist, scientist, humanist and a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College, has a creative perspective when it comes to thinking about work. “If we didn’t have this notion of 9-5 work before [in history], we could see changes that are unfamiliar forms of work,” Flanagan says. “For example, think of technological partnerships with groups of people working independently, like cooperatives. “I think we are going to see a lot of different formats for companies and corporations that we don’t have a good understanding for now.”
We spoke about what jobs were most threatened by tech. These included cashiers, highlighted by the opening of Amazon’s cashier-less store this week, and truck drivers with the eventual adoption of driverless trucks. Safer jobs—besides IT and STEM of course—might be gardening, dentistry and ministering. Although regarding the latter example, maybe not. There is now an app called Confession with a dropdown menu for sins!
The lively discussion continued with some great questions form the audience. Conclusions were hard to come by, except that all agreed that there would be much more thinking—and solutions to come.
Andy Serwer is Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.