Last week I spoke at the launch of a new online accounting service. Gorilla Accounting. It’s a nice model: fixed rate, online platform, with human advice when you need it. Ideal for the growing army of freelancers and contractors out there.
In my talk I addressed an old theme: will there be enough jobs in the future? It’s something I’ve addressed on this blog many times before, but doing the research this time around I came away with a slightly different perspective.
Most of the opinions I’ve come across on this topic lean towards the negative. There’s the Second Machine Age, and the Oxford Martin School research that suggests up to half of all jobs are open to computerisation. There’s some lighter stuff as well around new potential jobs, but by and large people seem to be coming to the conclusion that we won’t make enough new jobs to keep everyone in work.
There’s anecdotal evidence for this too: some companies (those I would argue that are best at leveraging computerisation, both in their operations and in their business models) are now able to make enormous revenues with relatively few people. Google and Facebook turn over 5–10x per employee what most of their rivals do (and Apple turns over 20x) — a fact originally pointed out by the venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz.
If companies can do more with less, will they simply need fewer people? In the past those people might have been employed through the expenditure of these super-rich. But in an increasingly automated world, is that now a realistic expectation (quite apart from the societal damage that such inequality of wealth can do)?
I’d argue that the answer is simply that we don’t know. I have leaned towards the negative myself, but then I thought about someone doing my job (or a version thereof) back in the early 19th century, as the Luddites were protesting against power looms and stocking frames.
The Luddites weren’t anti-technology, as the term has come to mean. They were protesting against the loss of work that these machines caused. Even if they could have seen that ultimately the increased productivity that these machines brought meant that ultimately more people would be employed, and the country wealthier overall, they would still likely have protested the loss of useful employment.
If I had been watching the ‘creative destruction’ of textile industrialisation from the other side of history, would I be positive about the prospect of new jobs being created? I’m not sure that I would. Which makes me question my negativity now: am I falling prey to the ‘Luddite Fallacy’ as others have before. Or is digital really different?
Right now I still lean towards the negative but I’m more aware of the — happy — prospect that I may be wrong. The question is, how can I advise clients if I can’t see through the ‘creative destruction’ any better than they can?
I gave the audience at the Gorilla launch the same advice I give my clients. What we know is that we are in a period of accelerating change. What is increasingly becoming my mantra is that it is more important to be adaptable than optimal.
As a company it is fine to optimise your processes but you should always do so with one eye on the future. Are those optimisations making you less able to adapt when the world changes? Are you sinking capital into an asset that may be rapidly devalued if the market shifts? And if so, how good is your foresight?
As an individual, do you understand which of your skills are portable and which are limited or limiting? How about your relationships and your personal processes? Are you ready to jump when the market moves and can you see that move coming?
These are the questions that we are focused on helping people and organisations to answer today.
You can find out more about booking futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright for your event here.