It ain’t about robots, silly!

Brian Arthur a noted economist at the Santa Fe Institute in Mexico and author on the topic of chaos first came to my attention when, back in the mid 1990’s I read a book by James Glieck titled Chaos: Making A New Science, While technically not a science textbook, it is one of those books that opens your eyes to the possibilities and leads to further exploration. For me it was a seminal book in forming my own thinking in the area of self determining systems.

This week Arthur writes in the McKinsey Quarterly about the ‘second economy’. He writes about the emerging impact of the electronic conversations taking place beneath the surface, upon employment, productivity and wealth generation. I will not repeat Arthurs comments, however I recommend it for a stimulating read.

This suggests to me that the main challenge of the economy is shifting from producing prosperity to distributing prosperity. The second economy will produce wealth no matter what we do; distributing that wealth has become the main problem. For centuries, wealth has traditionally been apportioned in the West through jobs, and jobs have always been forthcoming. When farm jobs disappeared, we still had manufacturing jobs, and when these disappeared we migrated to service jobs. With this digital transformation, this last repository of jobs is shrinking—fewer of us in the future may have white-collar business process jobs—and we face a problem.

Arthur asks the question, what will we work at when the service sector jobs are all fully automated. Now I know that not every human task can become automated, or do I? Maybe that is Baby Boomer thinking. Does my nineteen year old son believe that also, or does he peer fifty years into his future and wonder what work will be like then, for him? If you are in your fifties and reading this blog then you likely have little to worry about, just do what needs to be done to pay the mortgage and hope you have sufficient tucked away to pay your way through retirement.

The next generation and those following may have a completely different set of questions to ponder. Arthur talks about a shift from generating wealth to distributing wealth. This implies that if you and I have our ability to generate wealth (as in jobs) restricted then the majority of wealth may end up in the hands of a select few. Even more than at present. If people do not have employment, work or jobs to go to then how do they get the means to purchase the goods and services they require? How will wealth be distributed to them? How will it be removed from those that hold that wealth? Is it possible the second economy, being a digital economy will not be owned by any single individual but by a series of global conglomorates that are operated by and on behalf of Governments, with wealth distributed on a pro rata basis. Imagine 24 million people having to argue their case for distribution against 2 billion people in China!

Will people be paid to stay at home? Maybe we will have a life time of hobbies and see people engage in leisure activities rather than go to work, afterall so much of what we call work is simply menial jobs created for the purposes of fitting people into a classification and avoiding the need to confront how to distribute wealth to those that are not earning it. So many more ‘jobs’ could be automated and no doubt will be in future.

The community and healthcare sector has been the fastest growing employer in Australasia for the past five years. Yet so much of the work people in this sector perform is a a result of illness and stress created by social stigmas around labels such as unemployment, benefits, lack of education etc. If there was no need to work to generate wealth, could it be that many of our illnesses might disappear. And before you jump down my throat I appreciate that is a simplistic perspective. I only asking you to think about it.

Why? Because it has taken 200 hundred years to move from being an agricultural society through an industrial society to an information society (in the Western world), yet digitisation means that the future is happening now. It will not take a further 200 years and those that wait to see what happens will be those that take what is given to them. There is no better time to plan for the future than yesterday.

Those are my thoughts for the day.
John Coxon


About John Coxon

Principal consultant for John Coxon & Associates, a management consultancy working with boards and management teams in healthcare, aged care and not for profit organisations to develop effective strategic planning processes and social enterprise business plans
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