When my parents got into the workforce, there was no doubt in their minds that the careers they started in would be the same ones they retired from. If you were an accountant, you would always be one; if you were a nurse, you would always be one; if you were a tradesman, you would always be one. All the way up until retirement.
When I entered teaching, I thought the same thing, that I would gain repeat contracts at a school that I fit well into, which would eventually move to permanency and teaching, being one of those “recession proof” jobs (because there will always be a new generation of students that require an education) I thought it would be the profession I finished off in, not only because of the perceived security but because I was (and still am) passionate about teaching and education.
However, Gen Y has a bit of a reputation for job hopping and even entire career changes. Gone, it seems, are the days where you find a job or career and work through it until the day you retire. Many critics of my generation would probably blame this on an attitude of never being satisfied with a job and always seeking new challenges, more purpose, and satisfaction from our jobs. Whilst there is an element of truth to that, being that I think my generation has a focus on enjoying the work they do in a way that was never stressed upon previous generations who worked more for financial stability (not that my generation doesn’t want to be financially stable, but they want the added bonus of enjoying their field); however, I don’t think that it is the whole truth.
There are many elements as to why my generation and the generations that come after mine will see so many career changes. The thing is that the “job for life” concept went away a while ago due to changes in the labour and job markets that have had employers changing their business practices to remain competitive, letting go of loyalty towards their employees in the same way employees have let go of their loyalty to employers.
Now, some may think I am going to pick on unscrupulous employers and uncaring businesses here but, whilst there is the stereotype of senior management focusing on downsizing and spreading out an increased workload, I also think that is too simplistic a narrative to be completely accurate as well. Certainly, there are businesses and employers that have done that but I also realise that entire markets have changed dramatically, forcing companies to restructure entirely. Large companies have had to do what they can to remain competitive, and that often means finding the cheapest means of production, which often means finding cheaper labour, using cheaper technologies, and downsizing expensive parts of their business. Again, I know that this is a simplistic analysis but the point is that things are changing in the job market and people, governments, businesses, and society at large are struggling to keep up.
This trend will not go away; businesses will always be looking towards ways of reducing running costs in the quest for more profits. It’s cheaper to have several people in charge of the maintenance of a robotic production line than it is to have several hundred-people fulfilling the same role that the machines are now filling. No more rotating shifts, sick days, occupational health and safety worries (that comes with lots of people potentially having an accident), no more required breaks and all the other things that come with having a large human element.
Believe it or not, this is a good thing. When we automate jobs, we free up our most valuable economic resource: people.
The problem is that we tend to suffer change, we try to apply old ideas and practices onto modern systems. I understand the reasoning too: this is the way we have always done it and this is the way we always will do it; however, much like the idea of a “job for life”, it does not always ring true, especially now. What hinders us most is that we cling to old ways of looking at how we do things.
For example, Greens leader Senator Di Natale recently suggested that Australia look into implementing a four day work week as a way of creating jobs. While you might read the comments section and see lots of support, there are still also a lot of people who are claiming that it is unfeasible, that it is essentially lefties/gen Y types not wanting to work, that it hurts business, etc. However, the four day work week has been trialled elsewhere with good results: improvements in employee retention, less sick days, improvements in morale, improvements in work output, less carbon emissions (from less road traffic congestion), improvements in home life, and other improvements. Short of being bad for business, it ended up being beneficial.
Here’s the thing, I know a lot of people, especially in my parent’s generation, would still scoff and make some comment on the fact that they worked five days a week and, regardless of the benefits, that it’s still my generation looking to get out of hard work and at how easy we have it. The thing is, every generation of workers has looked to make their lives easier, and I have no doubt that the generation that introduced the horse drawn plough copped it from their parent’s generation at how easy they had it. Making our lives easier is the whole point of developing new technologies.
The idea of the four day work week isn’t new either, though you might be surprised at how old it actually is. Back in 1970, a management consultant named Riva Poor published a book called 4 Days, 40 Hours which advocated for the system. However, even then there is an earlier instance of the idea that technology would free us from the five day, 5-9 work week. In the 1960s, the TV show The Jetsons introduced George Jetson, a middle class office worker who worked once or twice a week for one hour, and was still able to afford a luxury home, robot maid, and earn enough to fund a decent standard of living for his family.
Now, I am not stupid; I know it is a cartoon representation of society but, even in the 1960s, people looked at technology and saw that, not only would it make life easier, but that we would cede a lot of our work to technological advancements so that we could enjoy more free time.
A shorter working week is a result of ceding to the idea that machines will do the work for us.
Then the question arises of what to do with the people that then lose their jobs to technology. We could go to a shorter working week or minimise the amount of work that could be considered full time, thereby freeing up work for others to be able to do; however, I don’t think that they are long term viable solutions. Nor do I think that moving to a system where people only have to work if they want to is good either, whereby the state would pay a living wage to the unemployed (that said, I do believe that unemployed persons should be looked after).
This all comes back to what I said before that our most valuable commodity is people. We should be looking into stronger investments in education, to a much higher baseline minimum level for which students should leave the education system, so that people can become more versatile in a runaway technological future. More importantly, however, it means that people would be freed up to do what technology currently cannot, which is to do the research that would continue to create technologies that improve our standard of living.
This is something that technology will not overtake us on any time soon; we may have technologies that can run complex computations and sophisticated simulations but nothing yet that can do the research that will better our lives nor independently create or design things we need (and some may argue that we never should allow technology to reach that singularity).
That is the future we should be striving towards: a highly-educated population invested in researching and designing new technologies so that we don’t have to work five days a week. Make no mistake, either, people will need higher and higher levels of education in order to compete in the coming future. As we progress in our fundamental understanding of different areas, the baseline level in order to participate effectively in the workforce will continue to increase, especially in science and technology, because the base level of understanding required to enter into a different field will simply be that much higher, and that much more complex.
Without making that concession, however, different fields will become entirely unreachable to the layperson. As technology and machinery continue to take the jobs of the industrial worker, of the primary industry worker, of the tradesman, we will be left with more and more unemployed struggling to break into a smaller and smaller pool of jobs, against more and more people. Raising the baseline of education needed means that when people lose their jobs to the marching drum of technological innovation, they will have the skills necessary to transition into other work.
Of course, with a real investment in education, we can retrain these people into entirely new industries, which may very well be necessary. Gone are the days of a job for life, or even the same career for life. As our society and industry continues to rely more and more on technology to replace the human element where it can cheaper and more effectively, these problems will only exacerbate. If we don’t heed the warning signs now, we are going to find ourselves struggling to remain competitive in the global markets.
We are already seeing those signs now, and whilst we may be trying to diversify our economy, we are probably not doing enough to ensure our long term is safe.