Will AI support a more purposeful working life for us mere mortals?

Putting the meaning in doing.

The theory is that companies will leverage AI to perform routine tasks more consistently, objectively and cheaply, creating opportunities for people to shift into more meaningful work. That transition is fundamental to the economic benefit that most analyses attach to the introduction of AI. In these evaluations, more meaningful equals higher value.

The AI Forum of New Zealand predicts AI has the potential to increase New Zealand’s GDP by up to $54 billion by 2035 across 18 industry classifications through this labour conversion. It also estimates AI-driven job displacement will account for only 10% of normal job creation and destruction over the next 40 years. So not the major robot rampage you may have been expecting. In fact, with our ageing population AI could actually benefit us more than some other countries.

But that still leaves questions. Such as, what does meaningful work look like? And who is responsible for the transition?

Research by Katie Bailey (Professor of Work and Employment at King’s College, London) highlighted four factors that make for meaningful work:

  • feeling that you have worked hard and to the best of your ability;

  • contributing to something long-lasting or external to yourself;

  • camaraderie and achieving things as a team; and

  • overcoming challenges and handling tricky situations well.

Some of these things might be trickier to achieve than we imagine in a world where people and AI work together. Celebrating a sales milestone with your chat bot team? Insert party popper and cake emojis here. Perhaps not. But let’s look at them in turn and at how industry might respond in light of AI disruption.

Working hard

One of the questions raised by AI emergence is whether it will change the amount of time we spend at work and impact on our sense of purpose. Clearly this is a very subjective area. We all know someone who should retire but is terrified of all that spare time. On the other hand, millennials reportedly see AI “…as tool to free up their bandwidth for creativity, not as a threat to their job” (AI Forum, 2018. Artificial Intelligence: Shaping a future New Zealand) or presumably, identity. Of course, underlying this is an assumption that the hours you do work generate enough income on which to live. Note 1 for employers and policy-makers.

A bigger cause

Here there is excellent synergy with leading-edge business zeitgeist. Millennials (set to be the dominant generation in our workforce by 2020) are frustrated with the political response to equality and environmental issues and are increasingly looking to the corporate world to make a difference. Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report showed that while 77% of surveyed companies thought corporate citizenship was important, only 18% had it as a strategic priority. Defining a purpose beyond profit should be a key focus for businesses wanting to attract top talent. Social enterprise is on the rise.

Team tactics

This is another ‘nice fit’ area with trends amongst future-focused companies towards collaborative approaches and flatter organisational structures. A well-curated kit of collaborative digital working tools is vital to foster that sense of team in virtual space. Not everything – that’s where tech becomes a burden not a benefit – just exactly what you need.

A knack for problem-solving

And this is where retraining comes in. It’s unrealistic to expect that all the people doing those routine jobs that we’re bumping to the ‘bots will have great soft skills and an ability to think outside the box. Some will and that’s where businesses have to change their recruitment focus, relying less on evidence of technical knowledge and more on EQ and creative thinking.

For those that don’t, where does employer responsibility lie? “Protect people not jobs. Nurture agility, adaptability and re-skilling,” advises PwC in its ‘Workforce of the Future’ report. Neuroscientist entrepreneur Dr Vivienne Ning echoed these statements in a recent visit to New Zealand. She feels our business community is in a unique position to be generous about investing in employee transformation.

“You grow as every member of this community grows…It’s really hard to foster that in America even in Silicon Valley, which has an ethos of sharing… but here…I guarantee even in the most selfish, brutally economic sense, it will pay off for New Zealand in a way that no other strategy is going to.”

(This article is the first of a series on The Future of Work.)

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Tech Futures Lab is hosting a monthly meet up for those keen to explore the future of work. Inspiring guest speakers kick off each session, starting with Christine Brotherton of Perpetual Guardian, where a four-day working week experience has been a headline success.



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