People often ask trend analyst Dion Chang about what will happen to their jobs when machines take over. The answer is complex since, according to Mr Chang, most companies are still dealing with the first wave of disruption – digital transformation or digitisation, which includes trends such as social media and mass customisation – while the second wave of disruptive technologies is already in effect.
Employers have an obligation to ensure that their employees are skilled to adapt to the displacement being triggered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, said Mr Chang. He was delivering a keynote address at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference in Johannesburg, on 9 May.
Mr Chang says the impact of automation, virtual technology and artificial intelligence will be felt across all sectors of business. This demands that employers make internal upskilling a key focus area of their corporate social responsibility, if they hope to drive inclusive growth.
This is especially important in emerging economies like South Africa, with its large population of millennials and unemployed young people. “We face a bottleneck of a population explosion and changes in demand for skills; an extreme youth bulge and extreme unemployment.”
In South Africa, where major industries like mining are already mechanising, many workers face displacement, exacerbating the country’s unemployment crisis. But employers are already grappling with developments such as the gig economy and need to ensure that their teams have the hybrid of skills needed to embrace a metaverse of automation, big data, ‘the internet of things’ and augmented reality.
21st century HR disputes
“We are at a strange fork in the road,” said Chang, “where businesses are embracing new technology but new technology is also being forced upon business. We’re stumbling along as we go.” This represents a ripple effect, said Chang, citing Financial Times’ commentary on the London protests between Uber Eats and Deliveroo: “These are workers without a workplace, striking against a company that doesn’t technically employ them, who are managed – not by people, but by an algorithm – protesting against an application update. A very 21st century dispute.”
On addressing a displaced workforce in the face of changing corporate templates of hierarchies, siloes and corporate ladders, Mr Chang said that the old models don’t serve business. “You don’t want to be the king of the castle. You want to be at the centre, with the operations circling around you, where you can make quick, agile decisions. Our businesses aren’t set up for that.”
Readying digital natives to enter the workforce
The average age in sub-Saharan Africa is Generation Z – the entry-level workforce who are starting to leave school. The education system will need to be adapted for them, argued Mr Chang. “They are true digital natives, and this will guide how they are educated.”
Localising this concept, Mr Chang described South Africa’s “extreme youth bulge”, in which 65% of people are under 30, and 27% of those youth are unemployed. “Premature deindustrialisation, with automation in the workforce, will take away jobs. Machines are moving faster than the workforce, creating a bottleneck in the face of a population explosion.”
On the upside, youngsters’ preoccupation with digital devices and social media vexes many parents, but has the side-effect of a digitally-enabled generation which may adapt more readily to the digitisation of business.
Image © Brett Eloff