The new world of work

Dec 9, 2020 | Sector & policy

Dr Paul Redmond, Director of Student Experience and Enhancement at University of Liverpool, shares the stats and facts behind the new world of work.

Since the March lockdown, entire gigabytes of books, blogs and reports have published on the new, post-Covid workplace. In the early days of the pandemic, the arrival of these would be met with enthusiasm. But as the long months of lockdown drag on into winter, this is gradually beginning to wane.

But wane ye not! Help is at hand. To save you time and minimize the risks of digital burnout, below is a summary of some of the key facts and figures you need to help you understand the new world of work. And I’ll start with three numbers:



Like hidden symbols in a Dan Brown novel, these three numbers first appeared in a statement by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in its October ‘Future of Jobs’ report:

‘Forty-three percent of businesses […] are set to reduce their workforce due to technology integration, 41% plan to expand their use of contractors for task-specialized work, and 34% plan to expand their workforce due to technology integration.’

And there it is. Forty-three percent of firms are looking to replace their workers with new technology; 41% are planning to jettison them altogether and replace them with contractors; and roughly a third (34%) are in the market to hire more staff.

Pre-pandemic, the gradual replacement of ‘zombie’ jobs by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics was widely anticipated. Even so, the full-blown zombie jobs apocalypse wasn’t expected until the mid-2030s, possibly later. In which case, the analysts at the World Economic Forum clearly didn’t get the memo, because they’re talking about now.

Whether Covid will turn out to be a catalyst for long-term structural economic change is speculation. Humans have a habit of over-estimating the importance of technology in the short-term, while under-estimating its wider significance in the long-term. In the 1990s, the mobile phone was seen as the ultimate in tech-sophistication. Three decades on, people need therapy to wean themselves off them. Arguing that every new technology comes with it its own playlist of unintended consequences, the philosopher Paul Virilio wrote:

‘When you invent the ship you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution … Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented as the same time as technical progress.’

What we do know is that Covid has given firms to take stock. As Jeremy Warner wrote recently in the Daily Telegraph, managers across all sectors have grasped that technology can mean getting by with fewer staff, less office space, less travel and much reduced business expenses.


Working from home or living at work?

It’s an idea that’s catching on. According to McKinsey, 84% of employers are in the process of digitalizing their working practices and expanding the number of employees working remotely. From now on, up to 44% of workers could be working permanently from home.

For firms like Twitter, the shift to remote working is here to stay. As Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of HR wrote,

“We’ll never probably be the same. People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way. Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”

Nothing soft about soft skills

But what about those preparing to enter the job market? How long are the post-Covid side effects likely to last?

From previous recessions, we know that the impact of the 2020 downturn is likely to be felt for some time. As James Bloodworth wrote in UnHerd:

‘On average, workers who graduate into recessions have lower earnings and worse professional prospects than their peers who finish university during better times.’

Given this, it’s even more important that young people don’t find themselves competing for jobs and sectors in which robots and AI are destined to prevail. To be employable, they need to focus on developing the skills and attributes that technology can’t replace; and for many, that means investing in ‘soft’ skills. According to McKinsey:

‘Social, emotional, and technological skills are becoming more crucial as intelligent machines take over physical, repetitive and basic cognitive tasks.’

Soft skills tend to get overlooked when it comes to thinking about long-term careers. This has left a gap in the market for problem solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity skills. Skills which robots for now anyway, can’t replicate. These are the skills which HR managers now struggle to recruit; the skills which drive change, deliver sensational customer service and build much loved brands. It’s no exaggeration to say that Covid has brought to the fore the importance of soft skills.

Twenty or so years ago, Bill Gates was asked to give a career tip to a group of young people. “Be nice to nerds,” he replied. “Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”

Perhaps it’s not the nerds we should be worrying about, but the robots.

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