Change is the intrinsic feature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR); the scale and pace are extraordinary, and it will be disruptive.
Historically, as technology advanced, labour-intensive sectors in the United States were affected through job losses and sector declines.
Despite this uncomfortable scenario, there is a strong argument to be made that South Africa still has time to bootstrap itself and shape its future.
Throughout history, countries that have been successful in reforming their economies studied the past and its trends, and learned to anticipate what the future might bring. Most importantly, they learned not to be found ill-equipped, uninformed and unable to adjust to the inevitable changes as the world moved forward.
When the full automation revolution takes over, what will happen to the great mass of the unemployed youth and the ageing workers who will be displaced as old jobs become replaced by new jobs that never existed before?
There are substantive concerns where economic development and the labour force is concerned, most notably the conflict between the technological advancement and the wellbeing of South African workers. As more autonomous machines and robotic technology comes online, it means that only a handful of workers will be required.
In the past, quick technological advancement has affected blue-collar workers the most because it is often followed by a new way of doing things that displaces old jobs or comes up with completely new ones.
First, take the American agricultural sector as an example; farmworkers were rendered outmoded when total mechanisation happened. Millions who were once employed found themselves jobless and were forced to look elsewhere, resulting in most of them heading to big cities in search of jobs and better lives.
Looking at contemporary South Africa, the same can be seen. Of course, this similarity cannot be taken too literally. The point is that mechanisation of the agricultural sector and joblessness in rural areas is one of the reasons people leave their rural homes and come into the cities looking for work.
According to a 2017 StatsSA report: “Gauteng comprises the largest share of the South African population. Approximately 14.3 million people (25.3%) live in this province” and it “experienced the largest inflow of migrants of more than 1 million”.
Second, when automation of the American manufacturing sector gained momentum, manufacturers took their jobs to neighbouring countries like Mexico and the Far East. Triggered by the rapid spread of globalisation, going global meant accessing a range of technology, resources, skills and potential clients in diverse global markets.
The precipitous and extraordinary decline of employment in the late 1990s and early 2000s was not limited to the United States manufacturing sector alone; the rest of the world was soon to follow, including South Africa.
We know how the country’s manufacturing sector declined and shed jobs as factories closed and companies took their operations elsewhere. Over time the sector stagnated and, compared to other sectors of the economy, has consistently been poor in terms of GDP contribution and job creation.
Aggravated by the country’s systemic prolonged unemployment that corrodes work skills, these former manufacturing sector workers not only found themselves out of jobs but have struggled to get back into the economy.
Some even argue that in a decade or two, emerging economies that rely on predominantly labour-intensive sectors are the ones that will be affected the most. In fact, this is already happening. Companies in the manufacturing sector, for example, are already adopting autonomous robots and machines to cut, solder and weld – activities that were once dominated by workers. Advanced technology has resulted in automation of those occupations that relied on manual labour.
It is not only the low-end and blue-collar worker who is going to be affected. In his seminal book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford uses examples to explain how the speed and nonlinear pace at which 4IR and advancements in technology won’t just displace work, but will reskill work, even for professions that are currently considered unaffected.
In the coding profession, for example, it’s possible that artificial intelligence will include machine-learning systems that teach themselves to build and improve on the work done by humans by developing smarter programmes. This will result in superior coding, which the systems will be able to do in far less time, therefore increasing productivity.
These are the potential implications for the labour market. Where do these developments leave South Africa? The interplay between public policy, politics and business progresses at a time when trust is being re-established between the two as evidenced by business support for the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa.
There is no time to waste bickering about what is right or not. I remind policymakers and business likewise – waiting is not an option. The evolution of work hastened by innovative and faster rates of change across sectors, skill requirements, type of job, time, distance and even location means we will all (government, business and labour) have to work together if we are to create and sustain jobs as we move into the new future.