The future of work is human, more meaningful – and female

Australians are not facing a dystopian future of rising unemployment, aimless career paths and empty offices, as some futurists claim. Quite the opposite in fact, according to a new report.

In an account that would apply to most other countries around the globe, the report’s writers argue that the “future of work is human – provided those humans use technology to their advantage to create more meaningful work”.

Making better choices about the work that Australians do and the places where they work could boost the nation’s economy by AU$36 billion (US$25 billion) a year, the report claims.

Published by Deloitte, the multinational professional services network, the report is titled The Path to Prosperity: Why the future of work is human.

Its writers note that the nature of work is changing, that today’s jobs are increasingly likely to be held by workers who use their heads rather than their hands – “a trend that has been playing out for some time”.

There is another factor at play, say the authors. “Regardless if jobs rely on brains or brawn, it is the less routine jobs that are harder to automate, and that is where employment has been growing.” That is also why non-routine work has been the winner in creating new jobs over the past two decades.

“These trends reveal something else: they tell us that the future of work is female,” they argue.

“Women currently dominate the fastest growing jobs – the non-routine jobs of the head – while men dominate the jobs most susceptible to automation – manual occupations involving repetitive tasks.”

This means the existing female workforce is in the right place at the right time to benefit from the changes. To meet the needs of the future, however, all employees will need to build skills and capabilities that have traditionally been more the domain of women.

“And while today’s jobs require us to use our heads rather than our hands, this binary classification is hiding something important – the work of the heart,” the authors say.

“These are the skills that are embedded in both the work of the hands and the work of the head.”

By “the work of the heart”, the authors refer to the interpersonal and creative roles that will be hardest of all to mechanise. And that trend still has decades to run.

Looking to the future

The effect of what has already happened across Australia suggests that:

  • • 86% of the jobs created between now and 2030 will be ‘knowledge worker’ jobs.

  • • By 2030, a quarter of Australia’s workforce will be professionals and most will be in business services, health, education or engineering.

  • • Two-thirds of jobs will be ‘soft-skill intensive’ by 2030.

Rather than these trends causing alarm, the Deloitte team says they are “liberating”. That’s because the boring, repetitive jobs will be done by robots, leaving the more challenging and interesting work for humans.

Technology, however, is not a substitute for people. Instead, the report says, it has the potential to make workforces more productive.

“Ultimately, it’s about augmentation, rather than automation or replacement.”

And, although jobs are changing in nature because of automation, they will not disappear altogether.

Key myths busted

The report counters a number of popular assumptions:

Robots won’t take the jobs of humans, say the authors.

Technological change is accelerating yet unemployment rates in the United States are the lowest in half a century, in Europe they are at a decade low, and in Australia they are close to their lowest since 2012.

Where new technologies do have an effect, the report says, they generally create as many jobs as they destroy.

“It’s just that the ones that they kill are easily spotted, while the ones they create are hiding in plain sight. After all, for every problem there is a job – and we’re not running out of problems.”

Australians probably won’t spend their working lives changing jobs.

In fact, they are staying in their jobs longer than ever: 45% of workers have been with their current employer for more than five years.

The ‘gig economy’ is not taking over: Casual jobs comprise a smaller share of all jobs than they did two decades ago, and that share has not changed in more than a decade.

The rate of self-employment has been falling for almost half a century. It is now at a record low.

Employees, however, will be anywhere but stuck in an office.

But they won’t all be programming new artificial intelligence routines on the work laptop while sitting on a beach. More Australians are working flexibly; spending an afternoon at home for school pick-ups, for example.

Yet only one in every 25 was working remotely on the day of the 2016 census, even though almost one in five Australian employers now offer staff the option of working from home. The reason for this is because physical proximity to other creative people is becoming more important, not less.

“Working together helps us collaborate and socialise, as well as giving us infrastructure and support. So the office is not going away any time soon,” the report says.

But Australia must ‘get to work’ to make change happen: “We have an opportunity to make better choices about our work, our workers and our workplaces to pave the path to prosperity for all Australians.”

Skills: Job currency of the future

As the jobs that Australians do change, so too will the skills they need to succeed in them. Employers are already demanding different skills so that workers can do “the work of the head and the heart”, say the authors.

Some of these skills are well-known: for example, the growing demand for people with coding and programming skills.

“But the skills at the top of the ladder are human skills, like customer service, sales and resolving conflicts.”

These changes are happening so fast, they are catching workers, businesses and governments by surprise.

At the start of this decade, the typical worker lacked 1.2 of the critical skills needed by employers seeking to fill a given position. Today, the average worker is missing around two of the 18 critical skills that advertisements demand for a job, the report states.

“And the gap is still growing, with far-and-away the bulk of those ‘missing skills’ those of the heart.”

For example, 96% of jobs in Australia require time management and organisational skills, while 97% also need customer service skills and 70% require verbal communication skills.

Australian employers want 3 million more people with digital literacy skills than are available. Yet that short supply is dwarfed by the severe shortage in customer service skills: the nation’s employers need an extra 5.3 million workers with such skills.

“The underlying equation is pretty simple: change is accelerating and Australia, and Australians, will be more prosperous and more fulfilled if we can get ahead of the game,” say the writers.

“Getting ahead of the game means refreshing everybody’s skills – not just those of today’s students. That’s why the future of work will require much more – and much better – on-the-job learning than Australia has today.”

On-the-job learning is cheaper, more relevant and more focused than classroom learning, they note. Also, the returns from on-the-job learning have been increasing for some time because skill requirements are changing faster and becoming more job-specific, the report says.

And this is happening at the same time as workers are staying longer in their jobs – the longest they’ve stayed in decades.

With the future of work more human than ever, organisations have a responsibility to build community trust, the report says. Ethical behaviour and diversity and inclusion must be embedded in business decision-making and workplace culture, the writers say.

The payoff

If the right workplaces are established – with people at the centre – Australians will be smarter, happier and more engaged than they are today, say the authors.

This is because workers can obtain the skills they need, effectively making them better suited to – and smarter – for the jobs of the future. Better matching between what businesses need and the talents that workers have can make workplaces happier and more efficient. And more flexible workplaces can encourage more people to work – to be more engaged than they are today.

The report says such a combination could lift national income by AU$36 billion every year from 2030.