The Coming Revolution at Work, Brace Yourself

The staffing industry began in large part as a workforce solution to cope with the results of the industrial revolution and its need for more modular units of work. More recently, uncertainty in the economy has produced a near “perfect storm” for the industry, allowing steady staffing growth despite subpar growth in the economy overall. In the US at least, temp work is now at its highest percentage of the workforce since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking.

Of course, changes in work are continuing and accelerating. Now it appears that we are in the midst of another major revolution in how work gets done.

To highlight those changes I point you to a couple recent examples. First, Neil Jacobstein of Singularity University was a keynote speaker at our Executive Forum Europe this past fall. He did a great job describing how Artificial Intelligence will have massive implications for the future of knowledge work. Additionally, this 15 minute video does a good job of summing up the implications of AI on the future of work..

At SIA, we’ve written about this phenomenon with our research based on the Frey and Osborne study from Oxford University. Our analysis suggests that more than 60% of all jobs placed by staffing firm firms are likely to be replaced by automation in the next 10 to 20 years as compared to around 40% of all jobs in the economy.

While it is comforting to reassure ourselves that new jobs will spring up in the place of the old, what if this time really is different? It is naïve to assume that it is a natural law of the universe that new jobs will always be invented to replace jobs that were automated out of existence by technological change. To put it more bluntly, if the diagnostic portion of a physician’s job is better done by AI, is any job truly safe? I suspect that this is part of the story we are currently seeing with income inequality. Those people who are on the right side of the curve and whose jobs are not currently subject to automation are doing quite well, while those who are at imminent risk of automation increasingly struggle to keep up.

Could we live in a world where 40% of all the current jobs we have are replaced by automation? Potentially yes, but two factors will limit it in my view. One, businesses need consumers. Replacing workers with automation if done on a grand scale ultimately means far fewer consumers for all those now more efficient businesses. Not to mention massive economic disruption. Second, as Neil Jacobstein discussed at Executive Forum Europe, humans and artificial intelligence combined are better than automation on its own.

So, what will it be? A world where fewer and fewer people are needed to produce the things and services that drive the economy? Or a new world where a whole slew of new jobs have people working in partnerships with machines?

Either way, my bet is on a period of significant turmoil and transformation as we shift in this direction. Just as the industrial revolution changed nearly everything about society, business and government, this new revolution is likely to transform all those same elements and more. And certainly there will be winners and losers. While we may arrive eventually at a world where there will be meaningful work for most people, that will only be true after change that was as wrenching as the coming of the industrial revolution. 

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