More people in developed countries are tertiary-educated, however as the supply of any commodity grows its market value drops. So far expansion in educational output volumes has not been associated with huge productivity gains and cost savings in its delivery. In New Zealand student loan debt is second only to mortgages in household debt. While mortgage debt leads to home ownership and its tangible benefits, much student loan debt is for intangible assets of indeterminate and sometimes nil value.
To achieve a return from education, students need to differentiate themselves and do so with higher or more distinctive qualifications, typically going beyond what is required for the workforce. This leads to a Red Queen race where higher qualifications are needed for the same job. This is costly to government and to students in relation to both their loan debt and the income foregone in delaying their labour market entry. Moreover, many of the aptitudes and skills needed in the modern workplace are difficult to measure objectively and codify and so qualifications by themselves are not meal tickets.
Increasingly, knowledge and capabilities are being codified in ways that mean they can be transferred to low cost offshore countries. This has long been the case for blue collar manufacturing jobs and call centre operations. The lower end manufacturing and service sector jobs that remain include many that involve a localised learning or personal service element.
What are likely to be retained locally in New Zealand over the longer term are personal services ranging from rubbish collection to surgery, from plumbing to old age care. Some such personal services will be low income because they require low skill levels or because they are difficult to automate and so capital and technology cannot be used to lift their productivity. Some of today’s high-earning professionals will become increasingly exposed. For example, much accounting, law and some parts of medicine can be off-shored. These are effectively impersonal services in the sense they can in principle be delivered from anywhere with an internet connection.
In the new world we are moving into, affinity with people, customer service aptitudes and social energy will be minimal threshold competencies rather than necessarily sources of competitive advantage. In many personal services a premium will be earned by those who can work with others, cross cultures, understand people’s innate psychological needs and act with wider interests in mind.
In the future job market there will be strong competition for good people managers. Managers will still need good threshold competencies such as intelligence and analytical ability, however good people management skills will be paramount. People will no longer just choose an organisation they wish to work for and a job they wish to do. Many will choose what manager they are prepared to work with.
Managers will come under increasing scrutiny because the technology is increasingly able to track them and their influence within organisations. Social media, cloud computing and electronic records management will make it easier to hold people accountable for their sins of omission as well as of commission, and for the long-run effects of their actions. When there are future regulatory lapses such as those leading up to financial company failings, “leaky buildings syndrome” and work safety tragedies those responsible may be held accountable.
The future job market will require adaption to different organisational contexts and new technologies. Organisations may have smaller cores of permanent staff and larger flexible pools of temporary and contract staff and consultants. They may seek to create more certainty for themselves by creating less certainty for their employees. This however can stifle innovation because insecure people won’t take risks.
Faced with uncertainty, employees can “put up their price” and demand more money. They may unionise and demand more collective power. They may extend their horizontal professional and trade networks to widen their options, for example freelance contract workers forming “virtual guilds.” Employees may also create barriers to competitive entry into their work field, and some of this will be through regulatory lobbying.
Because jobs are increasingly of limited duration, careers will often resemble not ladders to climb but ascending bell-shaped curves that grow, plateau out and then grow again. People established in life will often move between several careers, and between paid and unpaid work. As people live longer and healthier lives many will stay in the workforce because of its meaning to them.
An important mega-trend is people’s working lives are lengthening while organisational lives are shrinking. Some former chief executives have reinvented themselves in middle management or in consulting roles. Other top managers lead parallel lives as active scientists or creative artists.
People have always had multiple identities and shifted between them. It is possible for people to have low status in one of their identities and high status in others. A meat worker may also be an iwi, church or sports club leader. Others may have vibrant family identity roles and be of low status in their work and other lives.
A sophisticated society suggests more opportunities for people to shift between multiple identities and helps counter negative “spirit level” downsides where people are defined by their work status, and bear the psychological and health consequences of this. The future of working life will therefore increasingly be shaped by what lives people choose to lead and how work has to support this.
- Follow Peter Winsley on WordPress.com