This question is almost unanswerable, but it is easy to understand why people ask it. A definitive answer is not possible because future jobs will depend on decisions of large numbers of individual businesses, many of which do not yet exist, responding to demands of even larger numbers of consumers around the world. Some guesses are likely to be better than others, but no-one really knows what new products or new technologies will emerge, or how consumer tastes might change.
It is understandable that people ask where future jobs will come from when existing jobs are being threatened by international competition and automation. In the 1970s, when I worked at the IAC (predecessor to the Productivity Commission) many people were asking where the jobs would come from to replace manufacturing jobs then being lost to import competition. People who know about my work career sometimes still ask the same question today for the same reasons (e.g. in the context of the uncertain future of steel production in Wollongong) but these days there is greater concern about the offshoring of services and the impact of technological change.
I was thinking about the way economists answer the question of where the jobs will come from as I read a recently published report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) with the uninspiring title: “Australia’s future workforce?” Fortunately, this is a good example of not being able to judge a book by its title. The report contains many fine contributions by people with expertise in technological change and/or the Australian labour market. Some of the contributors provide information highly relevant to considering the nature and extent of job losses that are likely to occur as a result of technological change and the kinds of jobs that might be in demand in future.
Some points that seem to me to be important are summarised below:
- The jobs that are disappearing involve routine tasks, not just low-skilled tasks. This is resulting in job polarisation, with computerisation or automation of many middle-level jobs in processing and servicing. See the graph in my post: Is average over? (This point is drawn from the chapter by Jeff Borland and Michael Coelli).
- The jobs that remain are unlikely to be susceptible to automation and will tend to involve perception and manipulation, creative intelligence and/or social intelligence. (Hugh Bradlow).
- Future skills and jobs will most often be concerned with the creative application of technology to solving problems. Everyone will need to be able, at some level, to architect (e.g. to integrate computing and communication resources) design (e.g. to understand problems of customers and propose solutions) and analyse (e.g. to make sense of performance data). (Hugh Durrant-Whyte).
- Large job losses are likely to occur over the next 10 to 15 years. The methodology used by Frey & Osborne for the U.S. suggests that about 40% of jobs have a high probability of being susceptible to technological change in Australia. (Hugh Durrant-Whyte et. al).
- In recent years enough new jobs have been created in Australia at a rate sufficient to replace those that have disappeared. (Phil Ruthven).
- There have been substantial changes in the pattern of employment in Australia including growth in part-time and casual work. Most workers are happy with the hours they work. Job tenure is not always short in casual work – a quarter of casuals have worked in the same job for 10 years or more. (Phil Lewis).
- Employment relationships are becoming more adult: workers desire autonomy and employers are unable to guarantee jobs for life. (Lynda Gratton).
- Digital infrastructure provides potential for greater choice about where work is done, possibly reducing the need for people movement (e.g. commuting) and associated physical infrastructure. (Hugh Bradlow).
- Self-employed people account for about 18 percent of the Australian workforce. There is a gradual trend toward independent contracting, as in many other countries. The supremacy of the large organisation is fading; technology is creating greater economic freedom for the individual. (Ken Phillips).
- There is a significant problem of long term unemployment in Australia, particularly for unskilled people. Over half of the long term unemployed have no post-school education (about 9 percent have degrees). There has also been a substantial increase in people on disability support – numbers on disability support now exceed unemployed social security recipients. (Phil Lewis).
- Education earnings gaps (skill premiums) have been fairly stable in Australia, unlike the U.S. and some countries in Europe. (Michael Coelli).
- Schools and universities face a double challenge: how to embrace new technology; and how to deliver the skills required. This involves more than just increasing the number of STEM graduates. Education institutions will need to be able to encourage students to become creative and agile in applying technology to solving problems. (Hugh Durrant-Whyte).
- Technology is challenging traditional methods of delivering education. Individuals may need to treat their careers as a business - taking more responsibility for their own education and investing in skills to adapt to changing demands throughout their working life. (Sue Beitz).
- MOOCs (massive open online courses) are the iTunes of education. The way MOOCs will change education is likely to be similar to the way iTunes has changed the way people buy music. MOOCs are not likely to replace quality campus-based education. (Jane den Hollander).
- Australian industry has largely been an exploiter of technology rather than an explorer. (This claim is seems to me to be highly questionable in relation to areas of Australia’s comparative advantage.) In terms of Joseph Schumpeter’s distinction, explorers search out new solutions to problems, while exploiters seek to make use of existing solutions (e.g. by imitating). In the new global economy new ideas will be the commodity in scarce supply, so explorers and likely to forge ahead and exploiters are likely to fall further behind. (Steven Callander).
- Australia’s comparative advantage in specific industry sectors can be a driver for technological leadership in key areas of technology and computing. The most obvious industry sectors where this applies are mining and agriculture, but it may also apply to financial services, infrastructure and medical devices. (Hugh Durrant-Whyte).
- Australia is well-placed to benefit from digital disruption because of strength of services industries including education and potential for sale of services to Asian markets. (Sarv Girn; Phil Ruthven).
My answer to the question posed above is that the future jobs of Australians will be shaped by:
- the pattern of economic growth that evolves in this country in response to the changing opportunities that the world economy will provide to people living on the edge of Asia; and
- the human, technological and physical resources that Australians develop in the years ahead.
It might seem logical to proceed now to consider the policy proposals contained in the CEDA report. However, there are a few other questions I want to consider before I turn to policy.