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Does the 4IR spell the end of job security as we know it?

4IR…the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0…is here to stay. Like the previous industrial revolutions, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Jobs that have been automated are unlikely to return to using human labour and firms are not going to stop leveraging the consumer insights provided by big data. The only event that could possibly reverse or impact 4IR would be a catastrophic environmental shock, for example if we had to substantially reduce energy generation or consumption. As South Africa has experienced, major interruptions to electricity supply affect all industries and activities, as almost all modern technology relies on power to function.

We don’t mean to be alarmist, but it’s important to remain cognisant of the forces that could potentially affect the industrial context we have come to take for granted. Another key force to reckon with is one currently seen as a consequence or victim of 4IR…the workforce. Much of the literature on Industry 4.0 concerns job cuts, automation, new jobs created, new skills required…in other words, how 4IR will impact on labour. But paradoxically labour – and the response of the labour market to the changes wrought by 4IR – also has the power to influence the trajectory of the revolution. The role of workers and unions is less understood and only beginning to emerge as a theme in the literature, but undoubtedly will increase in importance.

Industry 4.0 relies on humans

4IR is changing the work place. That much is indisputable. However, the dystopian future in which robots replace humans at work is grossly overstated. As discussed in The augmented worker: What skills are needed to navigate the future of work? and The digitalisation of Africa: Africa needs chameleon-like workers with a suite of digital and soft skills, 4IR is changing the types of jobs and skills in the market but not in fact bringing about a net loss of jobs. The thought leader on Industry 4.0, the World Economic Forum, has estimated that by 2022 75 million jobs will have been replaced by machines, but 133 million new jobs will have been created, to maintain increasingly digitised work places.

This suggests greater reliance on a compliant and content workforce than ever before, particularly if you factor in the ability of a technically skilled but disgruntled employee to sabotage an employer in cyber space. Malicious DDOS attacks are already a regular occurrence, usually from outside an organisation; as the Internet of Things (IoT) expands, the potential for serious cyber attacks will intensify. The paradox of 4IR is that humans are vital to its success.

Whose interests come first?

4IR needs the support of the workforce. If employees feel that new technology is acting against their interests, they can exert considerable pressure – social, economic and political – to subvert its implementation or even undermine it. An organisation perceived to be dismissive of the welfare or concerns of its employees can have its reputation damaged or even destroyed overnight via social media. Organised trade unions may have lost some of the influence they once held over governments and employers, but their collective voice has been replaced by the power of the internet to unite people with a common grievance – the #metoo campaign is a shining example of a communal effort to bring down previously “untouchable” figures.

Benefits for workers of 4IR

Social observers believe that 4IR has the power to better working lives – improving wages, increasing productivity and enhancing work-life balance. For example, greater uptake of good-quality communication technologies such as video conferencing should minimise the need for business trips, not only keeping families together but reducing carbon emissions. More flexible working arrangements are helpful to carers and parents and make it easier for older people to continue working or only semi-retire, particularly as an ageing population in many parts of the world means an extension of working years out of economic necessity. By removing some of the barriers women face in juggling family and careers, it may be possible to close or reduce the gender pay gap. There is even a suggestion that automation, through the productivity gains it provides, will reduce the working week to four or even three days, thus giving workers more leisure time and having a  positive impact on quality of life.

What about job security?

It is easy to boast the benefits of 4IR, but there is a discrepancy between the optimism of business leaders and the fears of employees over the future impact on jobs. In a survey conducted by the Social Market Foundation in the UK, 45% of employees expressed concerns over job security. A similar percentage (49%) was worried about “machines and software making decisions humans once made.” By contrast, 69% of business leaders saw job creation opportunities in 4IR technologies.

There was agreement, however, that traditional career paths are changing, as not only entry-level and low-skilled jobs but middle management roles as well become automated. The job (or career) for life is a thing of the past. But pundits have been saying that for a long time. The concept of the “portfolio career” has been gaining momentum in recent years, less associated with 4IR and more with the financial crisis of 2008. A portfolio career consists of “a collection of skills and interests, though the only consistent theme is one of career self-management. With a portfolio career you no longer have one job, one employer, but multiple jobs and employers within one or more professions.” Industry 4.0 is simply accelerating the pace of portfolio career uptake.


The rise of the zero-hours contract

It is hard to say to what extent lack of job security can be attributed to Industry 4.0. But one serious concern that can be directly linked to digitisation is the rise in zero-hours contracts (ZHCs).

Data analytics allow employers to optimise resourcing, cutting back on staffing during quiet times and treating human capital as a “just-in-time” commodity. This may be economically efficient, but shifting workers onto zero-hours contracts creates income volatility and social instability.

Unintended consequences

Another concern raised by the Social Market Foundation is the uncoupling of productivity and wages. If workers think their jobs are at risk from automation and feel they have no job security, they may avoid bargaining for a pay rise, for fear of losing the job they have. Better a low-paid job than no job. It is true that 4IR cannot succeed without the cooperation of the workforce, but the irony is that while some workers will be highly valued and indispensable, others will be commoditised and devalued.

Increased worker monitoring with smart devices also raises concerns over privacy and surveillance. There is potential for smart devices to improve employee health, encouraging screen breaks or stretch breaks after a period of time, for example. But this type of monitoring can also be used to the employee’s detriment, policing toilet breaks and making employees feel “watched”. There is a risk of discrimination in such scrutiny. Women generally take longer than men for necessary breaks, and could be penalised for not meeting “average” time standards.

The jury is out

The world of work is changing. No one disputes that. If you are a professional contractor, consultant, freelancer or gig worker, you have made the transition and may already have a portfolio career. Job security with one company may be irrelevant to you. But security in your field matters. Will the job you do, in whatever capacity, still exist in five years’ time? Continuous learning and upskilling are essential to survive in the 4IR. The Social Market Foundation sums up: “The notion of a job for life, or even a career for life, is rapidly fading and employees in the future are going to need to be flexible in terms of adjusting their skill-sets for new job roles. Lifelong adult learning will become increasingly essential.”

Tell us what you think

Will Industry 4.0 lead to greater or lesser job security? We’re interested to hear the views of the Rosstone community. Comment in the thread below.