From the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century to corporatisation in the 20th century, monumental shifts in global labour markets have always led to deep anxiety among those whose jobs were being displaced.
The latest technological revolution — sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0 — is one where the likes of robots and self-driving cars are expected to quickly displace the very humans who developed them.
What new categories of jobs will emerge, and what are the necessary skillsets that workers must acquire?
“There is no better place in the world to turn to [for these questions to be answered] than Singapore,” said Mr Michael Milken, chairman of the eponymous Milken Institute.
He was moderating a panel on ‘Jobs of 2037: preparing for the future’ at the 2017 Milken Institute Asia Summit, held from 14-15 September 2017 in Singapore.
It's not that bleak a future
“When we think about the future, what we know does sound very frightening, but the outcome for jobs is not all gloomy,” said panel member Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister, Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore.
The panel, which was tasked to look into the crystal ball of job opportunities twenty years into the future, also included Mr Joseph Tsai, Executive Vice Chairman of Alibaba Group; Mr Igor Tulchinsky, Chairman and CEO of WorldQuant; and Mr Jaime Augusto Zóbel de Ayala, Chairman and CEO of Ayala Corporation.
“The often-asked question is whether robots will put millions of workers out of work, as if disruptive technologies lead inevitably to disrupted livelihoods,” Mrs Teo said.
“There is no doubt that advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will increase workplace automation. It is probably true that at the level of tasks, many routine tasks will be automated, but it is hard to imagine jobs being completely automated away.”
And if the past is any guide to the future, new industries will flourish even as old ones wither away, said Mrs Teo, citing the creation of new jobs in cybersecurity, e-commerce and logistics.
The discussion of e-commerce is certainly close to the heart of Mr Tsai, whose company the Alibaba Group leads the pack of Asian e-commerce companies that have turned traditional brick-and-mortar retail on its head.
“The common understanding of e-commerce is that it replaces or destroys a lot of jobs in the retail sector,” Mr Tsai said.
Instead of taking away jobs, Mr Tsai argued that e-commerce has created new growth opportunities in China by opening up the manufacturing export sector to a sizeable domestic market.
“The Alibaba ecosystem supports about two million people on the street making deliveries day in and day out. We generate about 55 million packages per day on our platform that need to be delivered… Many of the delivery guys have come over from the manufacturing sector; they were working in factories, and as the factory jobs scaled down, the delivery business went up,” he said.
New school skills for new cool jobs
Even if a new job is created for every job that is lost to automation, Mr Milken pointed out that the crux of the problem isn’t necessarily about a net gain or a net loss of jobs, but rather, the ability to match workers to future job roles.
“It is not just that people don’t have jobs, but it is also the jobs that go unfilled,” Mr Milken said. “This reduces the growth of businesses and industries that aren’t able to find qualified workers.”
Mr Zóbel de Ayala, whose family-run company was founded nearly two centuries ago in 1834, said that education was necessary to match workers to jobs that would be created in the next two decades.
“The services component of our economy has been growing rapidly, and agriculture, which was the traditional business of our country [the Philippines] back when my family business started, has been on the decline.”
“I think the challenge is to keep adjusting the skillset of the country. It is now more important than ever for educational institutions and industry to talk. Generally, educational institutions and industry have not always conversed properly; we’ve produced students from old schools of learning with old ways of getting degrees,” he said.
The audacity of goals...and growth
Technological disruption is a golden opportunity for companies to pursue visionary, long-term goals, said Mr Tulchinsky, who founded quantitative investment management firm WorldQuant in 2007.
“In this new world, you have to set audacious goals,” said Mr Tulchinsky, who talked about his company’s library of ‘alphas’, which are pieces of predictive code that tell computers to buy or sell based on market conditions.
“We had one alpha in 1995, 150 in 2007, and a million of them a few years ago. We now have six million, and in about a year we will have ten million… When you set these goals, you have to make sure they sound a little bit crazy.”
“The main lesson is this: the world is changing at an exponential rate, and data, computing power and knowledge are all growing exponentially. This creates a lot of growth opportunities,” he said.
1. Main image (top photo) courtesy of Milken Institute.