The mood at Davos 2018 was more upbeat than last year. Recall that in January 2017 those gathered on the snowy peaks were confronted by two unforeseen events – Brexit and President Trump. This year both events are in play – in fact PM Theresa May in her address hardly mentioned Brexit and President Trump gave a conciliatory pro-business speech (accompanied by a marching band). With the central banks and the IMF predicting growth rates of 2% and beyond, Davos man (and woman) are feeling the worst is behind them.
Instead much of the focus was on the impact of AI – ministers and Prime Ministers and Presidents (Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May in particular) worried about big data and issues of privacy; CEOs fretted about how they could transform their companies to make the most of digital capabilities; and there was a general concern about the impact of technology on job loss.
My own focus was on work and education. This year I am a Steward of the WEF Council on Work, Education and Gender, and so attended a host of meetings with politicians, non-governmental groups (such as the ILO) and CEOs. Here are my six takeaways about that: No one knows…
There is an understanding that many tasks will be automated and jobs will be lost, and that new tasks and new jobs will be created. In general, those lost will be routine work, and those gained will be either jobs that are hard to automate (caring work for example) or jobs that rely on creativity and innovation. But right now no one can be specific about the reach or the speed. AI in the ascendance
What is clear is there is much excitement about AI – Theresa May for example name checked DeepMind in her speech and shared a vision of London as the AI capital of the world, and there were many sessions on AI with long queues to get in. The excitement was palpable about the speed of development (witness for example the computer and analytical power of DeepMind), and the breadth of impact (for example on computing healthcare outcomes). Words like ‘super human’ and ‘artificial general intelligence’ became common parlance. Some said AI would exceed human intelligence within 20 years – others thought earlier. Disruptions and transition
There was a consensus that we are at a point of major disruption and transition between a past of job security and stability – and a future of flex and continuous learning where ‘combinations’ of art and science would be particularly valuable and where STEM skills would be in the ascendance. Yet many acknowledge that whilst this is a major transition, few governments or companies are prepared. An undercurrent conversation was ‘what is it that humans can do?’ Yes, we can be creative, innovative and inquisitive – but are our corporations and the way we live our lives creating space for these high functioning human capabilities? And, if work goes, what then brings purpose and meaning to our lives, and are conversations about Universal Basic Income simply sticking plasters on a much deeper issue? Partnerships
In gatherings of social groups, governments, educators and companies there was a clear agreement that no one group could solve the challenges of job loss. Who should support employees to make the shift? Could governments step in with financial support, should corporations be ‘nudged’ to do more, should educators finally take the plunge into ‘lifelong learning’, or should the risk be taken by the individual employee who must assume more responsibility for retraining throughout their lives? Some early movers
We heard of places where governments, educators and companies are moving ahead. I was in sessions with ministers from both the Netherlands and Denmark as they described the initiatives they are taking. Some, like Germany and Singapore, are focusing on apprenticeships as a way to ensure job-ready skills, others like Denmark are creating ‘roadmaps’ to show employees how their jobs will evolve and what they will have to do to make the transition. Similarly, companies like Westpac, TCS and AT&T are trying to bridge the gap by creating a map of the future and putting significant resources aside to motivate, guide and support employees; whilst companies like LEGO are focusing on educating parents to better understand the potential job future of their children. Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer spoke to me about the importance of honesty about job change and creating a context of learning. And a ‘tech pioneers’ group I led spoke of how new technologies in job matching, individual profiling, and learning could significantly reduce the current friction in the job market. But the truth is…
This transition will create enormous flux that we are not prepared for. So the need for action is crucial. The WEF is working hard on this and the reports published during the week on skills and jobs are important.
There was a clear agreement for rapid and immediate action. Employees need a great deal more clarity about how the job market will shift, what the new and valuable skills will be, and how they will be supported to transition to these new skills. Governments, educators and corporations must step up. Without these actions, the revenue from the growth that are being predicted over the coming year will simply exacerbate the growing inequality between the rich and educated, and the poor and uneducated – a point make forcibly by both Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau.