Written by Kendi M’Mbijjewe
The employment landscape is rapidly changing; the techno-age is upon us and there is no turning back.
For those of us who grew up watching the cartoon Jetsons and sci-fi movies many of us believed the imagery so fantastical it could never really exist. And yet we are paradoxically unaware or unimpressed by the fact that this same technology is already integrated into our daily lives. Take a step back and you realize how crazy it is that we walk around with voice activated hand devices that serve as our telephone, email, watch, calculator, memory stores, camera, music, and video players. It’s mind blowing that the cheapest smart-phones today give us more access and allow us to do more than the room-filling computers the most developed nations had 50 years ago.
The fact of the matter is our dependence on technology is continuing to grow and the way we experience it is evolving. Modern conversations about employment therefore necessarily consider the impact of technology and at the center of this conversation is the idea of jobs being lost to the machine.
In Africa this situation presents a particular paradox: on the one hand we desperately need technological development and on the other hand we need to ensure this technology doesn’t negatively impact our ability to provide employment. If we consider that Africa has the fastest growing youth bulge compiled with the fact that the bulk of youth are employed in the informal agriculture and manufacturing sectors; we have to ask the question what is the implication of automation in the agricultural and manufacturing industries? By some analysis Africa’s youth dividend could potentially propel the continent to becoming the next global manufacturing hub, but what happens when automation catches up and its faster and cheaper to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics than employ people?
And, the impact of technology on employment doesn’t stop there: corporate jobs are also increasingly at risk of the machine. As a city dwelling cooperate type, this danger of AI really dawned on me during the 2016 World Bank Youth Summit. During one of the presentations it was suggested that anything that can be put into a manual, any job that can be broken down into a list or series of steps could just as easily be programmed. Essentially what this means is: if your job involves repetitive activity a computer can do it—and very soon will do it, better!
Furthermore it’s not only large research institutions such as the World Bank that are looking at the quickly evolving employment space. Online there are dozens of bloggers discussing the evolution of technology and its implications for human employment. People asking the question: what happens the day that computers can program? The day that they can design buildings, bridges, and cities? What happens to the employment spaces for people?
According to the data, the “programmable” jobs of today’s middle-class are quickly disappearing and there will be a major split in society; inequality will increase as two types of employment emerge. On the one hand, the adaptable creative, those able to manage and combine different ideas. Essentially the CEOs of companies, term them “corporate-creatives”—those without a regimented daily routine who are able to lead others and manage multiple different tasks. On the other hand, the second big employment space will be for those who “fix the machines”, technicians with the know-how to keep the technology running.
Now I must add a disclaimer here and acknowledge that this binary is artificially simplistic for a reality that will likely be far more complex. Additionally and more importantly: it’s not all bad! Technology can (if we plan accordingly) help us! The modern age of increased technical capacity opens up all sorts of possibilities for what people can do. It opens up room for creative design, social engagement—for new and exciting unexplored possibilities. Technology can potentially empower the youth to create more, and provide the resource to execute their vision.
BUT! If we stumble into this modern age unprepared, we are heading towards a major problem and the youth are most vulnerable. Vulnerable to face a world in which they lack the skills to compete.
My major worries lies in our outdated education systems. Particularly in Africa, we are guilty of cramming mass information down the throats of our young people. Suppressing creativity and having them spend hours re-writing textbooks filled with information they will never need and never use. It’s so bizarre to me that we still have strict rules about handwriting, when the most developed nations have given up teaching incursive in schools with the awareness that the future of communication is digital. What are we doing? Seriously grading young people on how neat their letters are, rather than the content of their writing. Besides who writes anything anymore? I may be wrong, but I haven’t heard of a modern job interview where people are asked to demonstrate handwriting! Seriously let’s move on and focus on real modern world skills; we are not teaching people how to rewind tapes in schools, nor should we fixate on handwriting!
What I am trying to say is the core principle behind how we teach young people has to change! We need to stop telling people what to think, and start teaching them how. How to be creative, adaptive, let’s teach social intelligence, and team work. The youth of Africa has the potential to be our greatest asset or our biggest problem, equip them with valuable and adaptive skills and they can transform our employment landscape; fail them by attempting to program them and they will not be able to compete against a actual computer.
Let’s rethink education and empower the youth to re-design employment. The environment is changing whether we like it or not, as Africans we can no longer afford to be left behind.