The world of work is changing dramatically and the pace of change accelerating. For decades, CEOs have been moving manufacturing and customer service jobs overseas in search of cheaper labor. But there’s a much greater shift coming that will further speed job losses in the U.S.: automation. I'll explain in a minute how we can respond productively to The Great Shift that could hollow out the labor market with The Great Pivot to green jobs that are mostly immune to outsourcing and automation.
First, a sobering look at upcoming trends in the labor market. According to a recent Oxford University study, in the next 20 years 47% of all jobs in developed nations will be replaced by technology. Artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies have displaced and will continue to displace people in manufacturing, clerical and retail positions. In the transportation sector, self-driving vehicles could put millions of drivers out of work. White collar work is not safe either as tech looks to automate certain functions in the medical, legal, and financial services industries.
For those wringing their hands about jobs losses, let's talk through whether this is really a bad thing. Think about which types of routine tasks are boring, cause repetitive stress injuries or are just plain dangerous. Beyond that, which tasks do we as a society value having humans do? To explore this question, let's look at which work activities do and do not lend themselves to automation.
Think about automation as an opportunity to free humans to focus on interesting work that humans do better than machines. We might as well look on the bright side because, like it or not, automation is happening.
Current low level of employee engagement
When we talk about interesting work that humans should be doing, we also need to look at which jobs humans enjoy. The reality is that most people don't like their jobs. Annually Gallup polls American workers about employee engagement. The latest poll shows 32.5% of all workers are engaged at work, meaning they are emotionally and behaviorally connected to their jobs. The number is worse for Millennials: 29%.
Most new jobs are unstable
Then there’s the gig economy, a term that essentially describes flexible work without benefits. The gig economy dominates the changing world of work with 94% of new job creation since 2005. Portable benefits such as health insurance and retirement funds would address the downside of the gig economy, but that's a separate issue.
Now, the bright side
Let’s turn our concerns about job losses, job dissatisfaction and underemployment on their heads and ask an essential, existential question. If your basic needs were met and you didn’t have to worry about money, what kind of work would you choose to do? People want jobs with purpose and meaning. A job should provide not only income to meet basic needs, but also offer an opportunity to do something important with a group of people that the individuals could not accomplish separately.
Many of us want to work on building a sustainable future where humans live in balance with our environment and 100% of humanity's basic needs are met. The IBM Institute for Business Value backs this up with a survey finding that 20-24% of workers want to help solve a social and/or environmental challenge. This is why when one sustainability job becomes available, hundreds of people apply for it. People are hungry for meaningful work. We should proactively do something about the disconnect between the jobs people want to do and the jobs that are available.
The Great Pivot
We don’t need to leave job creation up to the free market. We as a society can decide what kinds of jobs are important to our well-being as a civilized society and fund The Great Pivot. Building a sustainable future will require work to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, retrofit existing buildings to be efficient, build low-carbon transportation alternatives, create a regenerative agriculture system, and build a circular economy. For years, thought leaders have been convening conferences, publishing books, writing articles and leading local planning group discussions about the need for the following sustainable economy projects.
- Renewable and resilient energy systems
- Solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal power
- Advanced energy communities and solar emergency microgrids
- Efficient, green buildings
- New construction for a half-mile lifestyle (commercial and residential spaces in walkable downtowns)
- Deep efficiency retrofits of existing commercial and residential buildings
- Fossil fuel-free transportation systems
- Extensive mass transit systems
- Mobility-as-a-service in urban and suburban areas
- Electric vehicle infrastructure
- Bicycling infrastructure
- Regenerative agriculture
- Small-scale, regional organic farms
- Carbon farming
- Circular economy
- Recycling and composting infrastructure
- Repair cafes
Now is the time to ramp up the level of effort on these projects. This work will require talent from many of the following job families.
- Architecture and engineering
- Computer science and mathematics
- Business and financial operations
- Installation and maintenance
- Manufacturing and production
- Office and administration
This will be the job growth of the future if the public sector and the private sector choose to invest. Funding The Great Pivot will not only create a healthy, sustainable future for us and future generations, it will create meaningful jobs for decades that cannot be outsourced or automated.