The tide of technological changes is enhancing productivity at the expense of jobs and wages; and potentially widening inequality. While more jobs will likely be created in the long run, actively helping displaced workers transition and succeed in new roles is a growing imperative.  

Automation and various applications of artificial intelligence (AI) are displacing jobs at an exponential rate — not only labour-intensive jobs but knowledge economy jobs as well. McKinsey & Co predict that by 2030, 800 million jobs will be lost, from low-wage manufacturing jobs in developing economies to insurance brokers in Japan and financial analysts in the US. 

Debate rages as to whether the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ technologies will create more jobs than are displaced, or fewer; and whether they will increase wages and work quality, or diminish them. 

Irrespective of what happens at the macroeconomic level, the adverse effects of job losses and job displacement at the individual level are well-documented. Researchers have attributed negative economic impacts, physical and mental health impacts, intergenerational consequences and knock-on effects in communities to job loss; these negative effects are only partially offset by re-employment. 

Perhaps this is no different than the hardships endured in previous economic cycles of redundancy and job displacement. However, the magnitude and the rate of change forecast are unprecedented.  The risks of economic and societal dislocation are significant, while our preparedness is minimal and uninspired. Alarge proportion of the workforce will need to be redeployed but turning coal miners into coders is not going to be the answer. Larger-scale, sustainable approaches to managing displaced workers are needed.

Solving this challenge will tackle these emerging social risks, but it also represents a tremendous opportunity to mobilise a valuable workforce. It could also potentially apply to people re-entering the workforce after a prolonged absence, due to raising children or providing care.

In the short term, this will mean developing relevance; the skills and mindset to engage in the digital economy. And in the longer term, building agility; a practice of frequent upskilling, adapting and lifelong learning.

The challenge: How do we create and sustain productive opportunities for displaced workers or workforce re-entrants in a rapidly-changing, digitally-enabled economy?