The Great Resignation story that dominates headlines might be exaggerated, but the technology story isn't.
They call it the tyranny of today. For example, whenever a radio station polls its listeners and asks them to list their all-time favourite records, a disproportionate number of records released that year are cited. I first became aware of the trend around 1991 when BBC Radio 2 ran a programme featuring all-time favourite records and 'Everything I do, I do it for you" from Bryan Adams featured near the top alongside Bohemian Rhapsody, Stairway to Heaven and Hey Jude. The song topped the UK single charts for 16 weeks consecutive weeks that year. At the time, some people even talked about it as the greatest single ever. Now I don't want to be unkind, but I bet you barely remember it if indeed you do. https://youtu.be/Y0pdQU87dc8 or maybe you groan at the mere mention of it.
The tyranny of today is always present; it just wears different guises. At the moment, we view the world through lenses tinted by covid. Covid accelerated trends that were going to occur anyway, such as remote working, increased uptake of e-commerce and telemedicine, but we err if we draw a long list of permanent changes that Covid will create.
Take the Great Resignation— why would you expect it to last? People may want jobs that provide a greater purpose, they may want an improved work-life balance, they also need to eat and pay rent and Covid has increased the cost — pehaps only temporarily — of both.
As Jay Zagorsky, senior lecturer in Markets, Public Policy and Law at Questrom School of Business, Boston University, US, told the BBC: "Right now [in the US], under three per cent of the workforce is quitting."
One survey after another may indicate that workers are thinking about quitting, but thinking about and doing are quite different.
Sure; there is a shortage of people with the necessary skills for certain jobs, like data scientists or AI technicians, but we knew that was going to be the case before the pandemic.
What we have seen is an acceleration of change that was already happening, just not as quickly. This has led to a loss of certain jobs, such as in retail or serving the office economy and an increase in demand for jobs in warehouses and in the UK, HGV drivers. The skills obtained in one area are not necessarily transferable to another area. This is creating transitional issues as displaced workers discover that their skills don't seem to fit the adjusting economy.
A couple of longer-term trends are in play.
Rising house prices encouraged by low-interest rates necessitated by the pandemic have made it possible for some people to bring forward their retirement, so that may leave a permanent mark.
The other longer-term trend is the retirement of the baby boomers but even then, it is nuanced. Sure, the ratio of retired to working people will rise and rise, creating pressure on the labour market; but the falling fertility rate should mean the ratio of children to working adults will also keep falling.
In theory, demand for carers should rise, and that for teachers should fall.
Of course, in the technology-dominated world we live in today, education is likely to become more important. So the above narrative is complex.
The other factor at play is demographics in countries that typically supply migrant labours. So it is a great irony that as the developed world reacts against immigration, the countries from where they hail may be about to experience a labour shortage.
But the point is, it's nuanced, and the story is far from clear.
The Great Resignation may cease to be an issue in a few years.
Thirst for change, but will it last?
Maybe Covid has created a thirst for change, which may lead to change before that thirst dies away.
Maybe climate change is a bigger issue —creating a permanent need for sustainable thinking.
Technology, the great resignation and a four day week
What is also clearly at play is technology.
An article on Business Insider finally put two and two together, making an answer which technology supporters have been screaming for months, years even.
Technologies such as AI, software automation, robotics, 3D printing, autonomous delivery drones, etcetera are not so much a threat to jobs but a means by which productivity can rise, supporting higher wages. The Robots are taking our jobs — and that's good news for everyone, headlined Business Insider.
It's a funny thing, but two themes get discussed most often when the topic of technology and jobs comes up. Firstly; it is will they take our jobs? Secondly, why can't we live in a world like the Jetsons when we work an hour a day, two days a week?
Today's real challenge is not so much technology destroying jobs. Instead, it is ensuring that the technology dividend is evenly distributed.
Hybrid working, WFH and the Metaverse
As for remote working — here we have another problem.
Working from an office creates jobs — jobs on the railways, in sandwich shops in clothes stores selling business suits.
If we work from home, maybe in the Metaverse with our avatar representing us, (we could work in our pyjamas for all the difference it will make,) we can save money on travel, suits and over-priced sandwiches. Employers can save money on rent. However, GDP could be hit by a contraction in the office economy. The real challenge, under these circumstances, is in ensuring that the benefits of remote working are more evenly distributed.
The post-Covid opportunity
Remote working may destroy jobs, but it will create them too. The challenge will be in the transitory stage — the opportunity is for us all to become better off in terms of money and quality of life.
The great resignation might be less of a worry than managing the post-Covid transition.
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