What are human beings going to do?

The digital revolution is laying claim to a rapidly expanding number of jobs, with the collision between job intensity and productivity unlike anything we've ever seen. What does this mean for young people?

The digital revolution is, at heart, a disruption of work, but unlike all previous ones of those in history, this one affects almost every form of labour -- unskilled and skilled, physical and mental, blue collar and white collar. Societies and governments have not even begun to deal with the challenges that this presents.

Computing power and robotics are not just allowing physical workers to be replaced with mechanical robots, but also 'thought' workers and analysts, who are being made to look like typists.

Employment intensity is colliding with productivity in a way that the world has never seen before, and a recurring question at the ADC Forum Hayman Island Leadership Retreat was: what will this mean for youth employment in particular?

The unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds in Australia is 15 per cent. In Europe it is as much as 60 per cent. Academics and business leaders at the conference wondered where these young people would ever find a job.

It’s unlikely to be in journalism, that's for sure, for which so many universities are producing so many graduates, all over the world. There was an article in Wired magazine recently with the headline: “Robots have mastered news writing. Goodbye journalism.” It’s true: a friend of mine has a business producing what he calls automatic journalism.

Of course, this is just one example of many. Process workers as well as analysts are being replaced in the broadest, most comprehensive productivity spurt the world has even known. It’s the combination of both mental and physical work that makes this era so much more disruptive than previous work revolutions, and so challenging for humans, even though each invention might not be as significant as, say, the steam engine, or electricity.

A session at the Hayman Leadership Retreat focused on "human capital in the next phase of technological innovation", and focused on the collision between job intensity and productivity. And the number one challenge of the list discussed was what to do for the people displaced, especially young people who haven’t got a job. It is true that, in theory, robotics, automation, cloud computing and big data raise productivity and therefore lead eventually to economic growth, and therefore employment.

But along the way, a rapidly expanding number of jobs are being done away with. At best, the people who do them will have to transition into new jobs. At worst they will be on the scrap heap, either because they are too old or unable to learn.

Another important point from the digital revolution highlighted in this session was the fact that work has fractured between labour and talent, and the minority pool of those with talent is now capturing extraordinary amounts of economic advantage.

Meanwhile the majority of workers who contribute nothing but their labour and their time are going backwards.

So the digital disruption now sweeping through industry is not creating a divide between those have a job and those who don't, it's shifting the goal posts for those in work -- raising the value of some, and lowering the value of others.

Even if governments wanted to do something about this, they can't. Another great work disruption is well underway and unstoppable, and all political leaders can do is try to soften the impact, which makes the Coalition government's toughening of requirements for receiving unemployment benefits all the more harsh and unfair. The jobs are simply not available. 

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