Will work be optional by 2033?

I recently read an article on work becoming optional by 2033. Well, this sounds like wonderful news for all of us who spend lots of extra hours at our desks. Can you imagine? No work! But, besides my own dreams, what I’m interested in is what this means for the supply chain profession.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve researched automation and the future of work a lot. Academics, technology experts and business leaders all expect robotics and artificial intelligence to permeate vast segments of business and personal life over the next couple of decades. However, when it comes to the impact of new technologies on the future of our lives and work, there is no consensus.

Some experts see automation and new technology as opening the way to a grim and jobless future in which life is a struggle for those on the wrong side of the digital divide. A remarkable study by the University of Oxford has estimated that 47% of jobs in the US are at “high risk” of being replaced by automation over the next 20 years.

Other experts, however, have a more positive view of the future: one where automation is the road to a happy future of leisure and learning, with technology doing all the repetitive and dull work for us. Rather than a jobless future, they expect work to become optional.

Jobless future or optional work?

I’ve discussed these issues on several occasions with SCM World community members – including at a recent round table in London – and the outcome is that they don’t really see us heading to a jobless future.

Community members think that, of course, jobs that can be automated certainly will be. And people will inevitably be sacked, too. However, they also believe that people will be far from unnecessary to their organisations: the unique ingenuity and empathy of the human brain can’t be replicated by artificial intelligence.

Delving into the University of Oxford study, data shows that the 47% of jobs at high risk of becoming automated involve repeatable tasks with limited decision making and no creativity whatsoever. As any supply chain leader knows, managing a global network is anything but repeatable.

As pointed out in an SCM World report on resource economics, the availability of skilled people is the biggest constraint on supply chain strategies over the next decade. The report noted that: “In a context of fast-rising labour costs in developing markets (especially China), senior leaders worry a lot about people, but not as raw labour input so much as skilled problem solvers”.

Chart illustrating skill shortages and supply chai strategies.

Products will be a near to zero cost

In his book The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin paints a vivid picture of a technology-supported future, where the internet of things connects everything — people, production lines, logistics networks and consumption habits — and big data analytics predicts insights in real time.

In Rifkin’s words, technology will “dramatically improve productivity, and reduce the marginal cost of producing and delivering a full range of goods and services to near zero across the entire economy”. So, a future with products available nearly for free and, as a consequence, an economy of abundance, is ahead of us.

The article says: “Untroubled by the fear of poverty, society’s relationship with money begins to change and we enter a period that has been provocatively described as ‘fully automated luxury communism’”. In this scenario, work will be optional.

The difference between a jobless future and optional work seems subtle, but it is not. What makes the difference is who will be the greatest beneficiary of the massive productivity gains of the digital age.

The article says that the response to a post-work society is universal basic income: “By 2033, every citizen is automatically paid sufficient income to make the threat of destitution disappear, while the quality of life has soared as the hyper efficiency of technology shrinks the cost of living”.

As my colleague Kevin O’Marah said in his recent blog, universal basic income is not crazy as it “assures something that business needs, which is consumer demand”.

What does this mean for supply chain?

Whatever the future of work will be – jobless or optional – supply chain organisations will struggle to find the skilled resources they need to differentiate themselves in a world that’s highly automated.

As today, only the best supply chain professionals will continue to make the difference for a winning company. Not because they’re more efficient, but because of their creativity, innovation, agility and decision-making capabilities.

Therefore, as resource shortage is expected to intensify, businesses will have to make an effort to attract the best, scarce resources and make their companies great places to work.

People in supply chain make the difference today. They will make the difference in the future too.

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Author Pierfrancesco Manenti

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