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The End Of Work?

Inequality seems set to intensify between the minority who own the capital ... and the many

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Attendance this year at the Jaipur Literary Festival, the world’s largest book mela, crossed half a million.  While the crowds surged to listen to 300 speakers including Shashi Tharoor, Anthony Horowitz, Amy Chan and Helen Fielding, my panel debated the more practical question of the future of work.  What will be the impact of digitalisation and automation on employment, society and politics?

Globalisation, especially the rise of China, has been the most profound development of the past thirty years.  Digitalisation, the so-called fourth industrial revolution, seems set to unleash yet more radical change.  Few jobs and few lives will be unaffected.  The political and social implications are potentially troubling.  Inequality seems set to intensify between the minority who own the capital and the machines, and the many who risk the loss of old certainties and job security.  The divisive politics of  Trump and Brexit may be but a foretaste of the resulting angst.

The experience of previous waves of  innovation has been that, while there are winners and losers, overall economic growth and job creation are boosted by the resulting productivity gains.  The Luddites might have sought to smash the spinning jennies and Arkwright frames which threatened traditional textile artisans, but in aggregate both consumers and workers gained massively from these and similar inventions.

McKinsey has estimated that up to 30 per cent of current jobs globally might prove vulnerable to automation: not only repetitive manufacturing tasks, but also taxi drivers and even professionals like lawyers and accountants.  The impact will vary by sector and geography.  In India, where labour is cheap and the economy not as systemised, the impact may be less. McKinsey suggest that up to eight per cent of current jobs in India might be at risk, compared to up to 20 per cent in China and 23 per cent in the US.  Ola drivers in Bangalore have less to fear from autonomous vehicles than Uber drivers in San Francisco.

While there will be job losses, there will also be both job enhancement and job gains.  Work will be enriched by the automation of drudgery and the digital enhancement of job scope and content.  A society supported by productive machines should have the leisure and resources to seek more sophisticated products and services. We may not reach John Maynard Keynes’ vision of people only having to work for 15 hours each week, while having much more time for family and cultural pursuits, but the quality of life should improve further and faster for those who learn to win in the new digital world.  

To be a winner in the new reality of work, we will need to adapt continually. The key to prosperity will be quality and ongoing education.  Both individually and as a society we must learn, and constantly relearn, new knowledge and new thinking.

India’s young demographic profile, commitment to education and genetic entrepreneurialism should enable the country to be a major winner in the future of work.  Technology will offer new solutions at lower costs to persistent needs and vast new opportunities for our resourceful young.  

That said,to win in the digital tomorrow will require a fundamental transformation in the Indian education system.  Functional literacy and rote learning will no longer suffice.  Instead, we will need vastly more research scientists and data analysts, but also more innovators, lateral thinkers and many more dreamers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Alan Rosling

The author is an entrepreneur and strategic adviser. He co-founded Kiran Energy and was earlier an Executive Director of Tata Sons. He was a Special Advisor to the British Prime Minister during 1991-93. He now lives in Hong Kong but is frequently in India. He is the author of Boom Country? the New Wave of Indian Enterprise.

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