Digital economies radically reshaping future of work and traditional boundaries

Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of ‘Leadership Lessons From the Books I Have Read’. He is on Twitter at @txm1971. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick: 28 June 2022.

How do we reframe our conception of work in a future far different from one we have experienced in our lived history? How do we adequately prepare our youth for employment in the digital economy?

Speaking at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2015, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft Corporation, said “I’m most grounded on the role of technology. Ultimately to me, it’s about the human capital and the human potential and technology empowers humans to do great things. You have to be optimistic about what technology can do in the hands of humans.”

The digital economy is at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and as we have witnessed in the last few years, we are undergoing seismic changes based on digital transformation, which refers to adopting digital technology to transform services or businesses.

In particular, the digital economy speaks to the economic activity that results from this digital transformation. This shift was apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic as companies that had been quick to adapt to digital transformation could continue with their systems and functions almost seamlessly. As Brian Armstrong wrote, “the digital economy will, soon, become the ordinary economy as the uptake — and application — of digital technologies in every sector in the world grows.”

New innovations, prospects and opportunities have emerged alongside the challenges of the pandemic, and together they present the possibility of a complex new era in human development — one where the race for digital and technological innovation must occur alongside the arrest of ecological decline and expansion of social protection for those most at risk of redundancy, economic precarity and impoverishment.

While globally, countries have begun the recovery process, unemployment remains a vital issue. So, how do we reframe our conception of work in a future far different from one we have experienced in our lived history?

Just over a decade ago, there was no need for social media managers and staying in a job with the same company for your entire working life was commonplace. Now, we have TikTok region managers, people to run our Twitter pages, a gig economy that has made having multiple jobs commonplace and redefining your role and moving onto something else is quickly becoming part of the new normal.

It is apparent that we cannot dismiss the concept of the digital economy. So, against this backdrop, how do we adequately prepare our youth, who face a startling unemployment rate?

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs report, “developing and enhancing human skills and capabilities through education, learning and meaningful work are key drivers of economic success, of individual well-being and societal cohesion.”

According to the global consultancy McKinsey & Company, you will need to excel at social, emotional, technological, and higher cognitive skills to have a chance to participate in the digital economy. Accordingly, our education system needs to be redefined. In part, this refers to reframing the skills of the existing workforce.

There is recognition of the need to upskill and reskill workers to cope with new technologies and digitised processes, and employers have been looking to accelerate the upskilling and reskilling processes and the implementation of necessary programmes to do so.

While new roles, opportunities and industries emerge, we are under pressure to bridge the gap between skills, automation and jobs now, before we face the global challenge of chronic unemployment. It is expected that in this new normal, there will be parity in time worked between humans and machines, with human labour being directed towards managing, advising, decision-making, reasoning, communicating and interacting.

The Future of Jobs 2020 report suggests that while 85 million jobs could be displaced by 2025 due to the change in the division of labour, 97 million new jobs could emerge in the same period in the 26 economies included in the survey.

Thus, with projections that gig, contract and work-on-demand arrangements will become more prevalent, more coordinated policy-making and development are required to support workers in finding meaningful employment that can sustain livelihoods while also developing wraparound social supports that can offset changes in the nature of work.

These include interventions that introduce transferable skills to public education systems, such as coding, robotics and enhanced IT skills; rethinking the nature and structure of higher, vocational and technical education to respond to the needs of a changing job market.

What this fundamentally calls for is a skills revolution, if you will. Yet, currently, South Africa remains woefully ill-prepared for this shift. The question then becomes, how do we prepare our youth who are facing the prospect of unemployment? This feeds into some of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the 4IR, which released its report in 2020.

In particular, the commission, of which I was a deputy chair, calls for redesigning our human capacity development that will link our entire pool of potential employees with productive and decent work. In order to achieve this, a comprehensive view of the entire human capital system must be developed, and the leverage points which can be accelerated by 4IR need to be identified.

What is envisioned is a four-pronged approach. Firstly, the government needs to prioritise redesigning the human capacity development ecosystem mentioned above. This will be facilitated at the Human Resources Development Council, assisted by the 4IR committee and driven by the Digital Skills Forum.

Secondly, the private sector, made up of both large businesses and small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs), needs to outline what skills are required and collaborate on strategic projects for mass skills development linked to various industries.

Thirdly, labour unions need to review their role in light of 4IR and recommend appropriate worker protections. These protections will have to be implemented in collaboration with the government.

Fourthly, academic institutions ranging from schools to universities to technical and vocational education and training colleges need to review their curriculums with a focus on 4IR to ensure the relevance of qualifications based on requisite skills and the principle of lifelong learning.

This paradigm shift represents the untold potential for youth entrepreneurship. As TechCrunch, a digital economy news site notes, “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate… Something interesting is happening.”

What is apparent is that we are fundamentally reimagining the future of work and challenging traditional boundaries.

Human adaptability, after all, is part and parcel of human nature and concentrates on the flexibility with which humans, both individually and as populations, survive environmental challenges through biological and behavioural means. Our takeaway is that a changing world of work and a future that seems uncertain is not something to fear but rather something to embrace.

The caveat, of course, is that our youth must be equipped with the right skills to tap into these opportunities.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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