Facing An Unknown Future

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For years, it has felt as if there has been this quiet undergirding taking hold across our society, as we consider the creep of automation and artificial intelligence upon jobs.  Especially as we begin to consider the possibility of a rather dystopian future, a world in which that same automation, as well as robots and artificial intelligence have left us jobless.  We seem to be facing this pivotal point in time where we are gearing up for an inevitable race against the machines.  For which Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment adds, “Potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.  The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for goods and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.”  Or as the famous 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Micael A. Osborne at the University of Oxford have concluded, “occupations amounting to nearly half of US total employment may be vulnerable to automation within roughly the next two decades.”

However, in recent years, there has been a bit of a circling back from that dystopian narrative of a future without jobs.  We hear more and more about the automation and infiltration of artificial intelligence towards tasks, more than entire jobs.  Which is not to say that this coming future will not face severe job losses in the face of automation and artificial intelligence, but the picture now being painted seems more focused on tasks and how work itself will change.  However, with this rising narrative of an augmented future, there is the belief that there will be an increase in new jobs, but jobs that are now requiring new skills and capabilities, where augmentation seems to be the more logical approach in moving forward.  Meaning that it is becoming much less of a race against the machine and more of a race with the machine.  As Erik Brynjolfsson, author of Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy offers, “What can we do to create shared prosperity? The answer is not to try to slow down technology.  Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”  The only problem is that the amount and pace at which these new jobs are being created is being outpaced by the ability of today’s digital disruption to eliminate jobs.  For which he adds, “Technology is always creating jobs.  It’s always destroying jobs.  But right now the pace is accelerating.  It’s faster we think than ever before in history.  So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”

Whereas others believe that the fear of a jobless future, one in which automation and artificial intelligence has taken the vast majority of jobs, is nonsense.  Much like other industrial revolutions of the past, we will have to deal with some initial discomfort to the changes that the fourth industrial revolution will place upon us, but much like the past, we will adapt and continue to move forward much like we have done in the past.  As David Autor, MIT Department of Economics and National Bureau of Economic Research shares in his paper, Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?  The History and Future of Workplace Automation is that “employment polarization will not continue indefinitely.  While some of the tasks in many current middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, many middle-skill jobs will continue to demand a mixture of tasks from across the skill spectrum.”  However, one thing that he says will continue is the “increased demand for skill workers.”  For which he shares in his paper The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market, “But since the mid-1970’s, the rise in U.S. education levels has not kept up with the rising demand for skilled workers.”

So, with that said, whatever narrative you tend to agree lean towards, there are some trends or ideas that bridge across all three narratives that will be vital for some semblance of moving forward successfully in this very non-obvious future we are facing.

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) World:  We live in times of constant change, but what makes it different for today’s world is the speed, pace and turbulence at which change is now occurring.  We live in accelerated times.  Which is why VUCA thinking and a VUCA mindset allows an individual and an organization to prepare for volatility of change, uncertainty of the future, complexity of systems, and ambiguity of next steps.  As Lisa Kay Solomon shares, “VUCA isn’t going away.  Change promises to speed up, not slow down.  To thrive in a world where change is the only constant, leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.”  Or as Marilyn Ferguson, American Futurist adds, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a future of perpetual learning:  As Kevin Kelly editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable shares is that we are “newbies” in today’s world and “You will be a newbie forever.”  As he shared in The Creativity Post, “In this new world, we are always in a state of becoming.  We live in the age of the present participle – words ending in -ing that mean the action is in process.  Everything is in a flowing, changing state.  This flux turns us into continuous learners.”  We are quickly moving out of a time where the ability to “know” is giving over to the ability to “learn.”  In a world that is changing at an accelerated rate, while knowledge is vital, the ability to learn and remain a perpetual learner is key to remaining relevant.  For which McKinsey and Company puts forth, “For workers of the future, the ability to adapt their skills to the changing needs of the workplace will be critical.  Lifelong learning must become the norm – and at the moment, the reality falls fare short of the necessity.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization to remain adaptable and agile to the profound shifts that are to be faced now and in the future:  Our world has tilted.  We are now facing fewer and fewer technical problems and more and more adaptive challenges and dilemmas.  Challenges and dilemmas that do not have ready made answer or solutions, even if they have an answer or solution at all.  In a world of accelerated change, inability to remain adaptable and agile often leads to irrelevance.  As Bob Kegan shares, “Work will increasingly be about adaptive challenges, the ones that artificial intelligence and robots will be less good at meeting. There’s going to be employment for people with growth mind-sets, but fixed mind-sets are going to be more and more replaceable by machines”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for AND:  It is an AND world…It requires both knowledge and skills to navigate more effectively now and in the future. Especially in a world that is unfolding, evolving and exponentially changing at a much more accelerated and turbulent rate.  Understanding the importance of both knowledge, skills, as well as continual upskilling and reskilling as well as perpetual learning, this weighing of AND, will allow individuals and organizations to remain relevant for the future.  As the OECD adds, “Ensuring that everyone has the right skills for an increasingly digital and globalized world is essential to promote inclusive labor markets and to spur innovation, productivity, and growth.”

Today’s world not only requires our ability to face these VUCA challenges and dilemmas, and it not only requires us to remain perpetual learners and “newbies” towards these challenges and dilemmas to better engage the questions and thinking that leads to better solutions, it also requires the collaborative environments, based in trust and psychological safety, that will move us, as individuals, teams, and organizations, forward more effectively and relevantly into this very different and non-obvious future.

Understanding and recognizing today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) World reminds us how quickly things are changing around us.  But it is our ability to learn, in the face of this VUCA, that we are able, both as individuals and organizations, to remain adaptable and agile to these new demands and dilemmas we are now and will face.

If we are not engaging the future thinking necessary to at least try and imagine what the world will be like for today’s kindergartener by the time they graduate…then it will be incredibly difficult for us to even consider how to begin to prepare them for a non-obvious future and an exponentially changing world.

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