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The ‘Electronic Revolution’ and the Future of Work

Read Wednesday, 12 Nov 2014

As traditional jobs like those in the manufacturing sector decline, new kinds of jobs are on the rise. We hear from Charles Brass, chair of the Futures Foundation, about the future of jobs – and work – in Australia, in the age of the ‘electronic revolution’. He says that responsibility for creating work and staying employed has shifted from the employer to the individual – and this affects the way we think about jobs and careers.

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Image by Lending Memo.

The phrase futurist has been around for 40 or 50 years, but not in Australia. Essentially, it’s arisen as people have started asking themselves questions about what has happened as the future has arrived and they’ve been surprised or angered or in some way disturbed about it. In this country for the last ten years, you’ve been able to go to Swinburne University and get a masters degree in what’s called strategic foresight, which is an attempt to try and systematise that approach to attempt to understanding the future.

The electronic revolution

Australian futurist business consultant Phil Riven talks about there being three great revolutions. All of these revolutions have changed the way jobs and work arise, because what we’ve done as human beings is to outsourced things we once did for ourselves. In the agrarian revolution, 10,000 years ago, we outsourced the growing of things. In the industrial revolution, we outsourced the making of things. And in the current electronic revolution, we’re outsourcing the doing of things. Riven’s idea is that there is still a whole raft of human activity that we do for ourselves and this is capable of being outsourced. While that’s capable of being outsourced, it’s possible for the economy to continue to expand and grow. He sees that as a good outcome.

I wonder where that stops. It’s not only that human beings are capable of outsourcing all this stuff; we’re capable of outsourcing it to non-human-beings. We now have the capacity to get technology to do a whole lot of this stuff that we once did for ourselves. That’s fine, in theory, but it does raise the question: what are people going to do? And then how are people going to gather together the money necessary to participate in the economy? That I think is the big challenge.

‘It’s now your responsibility to find the work you need’

When I entered the job market, boys decided in about Year 9 whether they’d work with their hands or their brains – and then they got themselves into either a trade or a profession. It was up to their trade or profession, or their employer, to provide them with a job. When I first started work in the 1960s, if you worked for Myer, it was Myer’s responsibility to keep you busy between nine and five, Monday to Friday. Now if there’s no work at Myer, they send you home – they don’t pay you. So the responsibility has shifted, from being the employer’s responsibility to provide you with a job. It’s now your responsibility to find the work that you need. That’s the real shift that we have to get through people’s heads.

Whatever you’re doing: whether it’s in education, whether you’re at school or in a university, you are acquiring a set of skills, but the real question is, how are you approaching the world? Because it’s now your responsibility, for better or worse: it’s up to you, not up to your employer or your profession.

See the whole of your life as a tapestry you’re creating’

The concept of making your future work is about seeing the whole of your life as a tapestry you’re creating. Once upon a time, that thing called a job was created for you by someone else and you went to it. The theory was, you got enough money to go and make the rest of your life work. Now, you’re responsible for all of it, and that’s where this gets tricky.

So much of the discussion seems to be that there’s some sort of inevitability about what’s happening and we’re stuck with it. The impression is that there is some sort of uncertainty about the future of jobs. And that may be true – there are all sorts of changes taking place. But there’s absolutely no uncertainty about the future of work.

Bringing what we value into the economy

There has always been more to be done than we have people capable of doing it. You only have to look around your environment, look around your neighbourhood, look around anywhere. There is stuff that needs doing that is not being done. Why is it not being done? Because a bunch of people have made a decision (either overtly or covertly) about what fits into the economy.

The stuff that fits into the economy gets done because it has money associated with it, and all the other things that go with it, and the stuff that doesn’t get done is somehow outside the economic system. The greenie in residence is a perfect example of a role that, 10 or 15 years ago, was outside the economy. It didn’t exist there; we’ve brought it into the economy. There are now greenies in residence. It is a matter of choice. The question we need to be asking is: what do we want done, and how do we go about getting it done? Rather than having this view that there’s some sort of machine out there that’s driving us in a particular direction – and that the best we can do is cling on for dear life and hope it provides us with a sustainable future.

Worker-owned enterprises are one other way of operating. There are all sorts of things that can be done and billed locally. But that’s not the way we’re being encouraged to think at the moment. We’re being encouraged to believe that we are single individuals having to face an increasingly hostile world on our own. Those who are struggling to make a living through a bit of part-time work feel like they have to focus on that so they have no time to focus on anything else.

What do we need to do to shift our thinking away from the idea that we’re all rapacious individuals who only survive by doing what is best for us individually?

This is an edited selected transcript from the Wheeler Centre event, Question time: Jobs of the Future.

In our Question time series, audience members ask questions of the experts, guided by ABC TV’s Madeleine Morris. Join us for our next Question time event, Question time: Transport, on Wednesday 19 November.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.