The Future of Work and how Trump’s win shows how vital the arts and humanities are


Mithunkumar Ramalingam and Brian Bailey

The second half of 2016 has seen a number of reports and papers suggesting emergent disruption of the structural composition of the Australian workforce, largely through a convergence of technologies that seem likely to drive the automation of work. What might be the implications on teaching and learning practices at the University of Sydney in the midst of its undergraduate curriculum transformation program? What, if any, are the implications for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences?

  • With an aim of sparking conversations, this paper briefly explores:
  • The automation of work and the changing composition of the labour force.
  • A shifting of focus in graduate qualities and curriculum design and delivery.  The role of the Humanities in the future.

The Automation of Work

In their August 2016 quarterly update, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) highlights the current Australian labour force is dominated by the services sector and, to a lesser extent, construction, while noting the significant and ongoing shift away from manufacturing. This structural change is indicative of the trend of jobs being impacted by technology, especially automation; as improvements in technology allow the manufacturing industry to produce the same levels of output, but with fewer workers (The Australian Industry Report (2014).

Frey and Osborne (2013) examine the impact of computerisation and automation on US labour market outcomes, and found about 47% of US employment is at risk of computerisation. The jobs at most risk of being automated are procedural and require little cognitive and creative input, roles prevalent in manufacturing.

Given the current Australian workforce composition, with over 62% of workers employed in service industries, the risk of a mass shift of human capital towards computerisation appears less pronounced than the US. The assumption that workplace automation will affect services and construction less than manufacturing is itself now under serious question (Frey and Osborne, 2013). For example, retail, a form of service which employs 10.2% of the US labour force, is regarded as highly likely (92% likelihood) to be computerised, according to Frey and Osborne (2013).

Historically, as technology advances and develops, labour also adapts to the changes. Technology has tended to disrupt dull, repetitive jobs, in favour of roles better suited to more human qualities. Bank tellers have given way to automation but a rising demand for financial services professionals has emerged as financial institutions have employed people and technology in combination to sell more products. Similarly, a decline of data entry clerks has been offset against an increase in data scientists. Computerisation has and will continue to lead to the redundancy of certain professions, but also gives rise to new ones. Table 1 below outlines some ‘at risk of obsolescence’ professions. All these have been impacted by technological advancements, especially automation.

While technology appears to create more, or as many new jobs as those destroyed, it is not clear that will always be the case. Even allowing for the number of new jobs created, there is an increasing velocity in change, and it is not always those displaced that will take the new jobs; there will always be a structural deficit as workers need to re-skill, and/ or re-locate. A portion of each wave of change that loses its hold on the full-time labour market.

Shifting Focus of Graduate Qualities and Curriculum Transformation

The labour market is evolving into a more technology-dependent system, so for labour market outcomes to remain strong, education and professional development must be equally dynamic.

The Data61 report, Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce, talks about gearing educational programs to the needs of future employers. Essentially, arguing education and training should be more focused towards the skills that are relevant in the future, and have a lower chance of being automated. Data61 and Frey and Osborne concur the key soft skills for a future-proof employee are those that require social interaction and emotional intelligence, the most difficult skills to automate.

This is reflected in Table 1, where the emerging/new professions are those that require cognitive, problem solving and creative ability.

At risk, obsolete and emerging professions

At Risk (‘On the Way Out’) Obsolete Emerging/New

  • Telemarketer, Photo film development technician vs. Big data architect
  • Real estate agent, Video rental store clerk vs. UI/ UX designer
  • Mathematical technician, Bank teller vs. IOS and android developer
  • Library technician, Cartographer vs. Personal trainer
  • Legal secretary, Switchboard operator vs. 3D printer operator
  • Farmer, Data entry clerk vs. Drone operator
  • Locomotive engineer/ train driver vs. Digital marketing specialist
  • Accounting clerk vs. Driverless car engineer

The automation of work has been one factor in a shift in focus of the outcomes of Higher Education institutions – expressed as ‘graduate qualities’ – and the teaching and learning process, itself; with an emerging shift from content-based learning to skills-based learning. This is reflected in the new graduate qualities identified in the University of Sydney’s 2016-20 Strategic Plan, where the focus is on those human skills designed to ‘future-proof’ students. Critical thinking, problem solving, cultural competence and inventiveness are all skills that are difficult to automate. These new graduate qualities are a part of developing a broader undergraduate curriculum aimed at building on content knowledge foundations, with skills for enquiry, communication, critical thinking and data analysis. The effort necessary to transform the university’s curriculum, including the way it is designed, delivered and consumed, is in large part to support the graduate qualities identified as critical for future jobs.

What’s Next?

The University of Sydney’s graduate employability ranking for 2017 is 4th in the world (Munro 2016), suggesting employers do see the relevance of skills in current graduates of the University of Sydney, but the future of work suggests little time for resting upon the laurels of past achievement.

For these new graduate qualities to be effective, the desired outcomes must be reflected in teaching feedback and assessment practices, as it is assessments that are the drivers of learning for students (Flipcurric 2016). There should be less emphasis on passing exams and more attention given “to confirming that what graduates are actually capable of doing, is going to be of benefit to their professional work and, more broadly, to the social, cultural, economic and environmental sustainability of our planet” (Flipcurric 2016).

The Role of the Humanities in the Future

In response to an oversupply and a decline in the demand for engineers, the Department of Education and Training’s 2017/18 Skilled Occupations List has been revised now exclude many engineering professions, such as civil, mechanic and agricultural engineering. When considering this in conjunction with labour market trends, it seems clear there is an increasing opportunity for the Humanities and creative arts to thrive, as our species’ most future-proof skills are intrinsically the most ‘human’.

As more tasks are transferred from labour to capital, there comes the risk of under-employment within the economy. This begs the question, what’s going to happen when there’s more free time than work? On one extreme, this could result in a dystopia of falling household incomes for those without capital. A more hopeful outcome is that we see an increase in leisure time, as technology growth reduces the time people need to earn the same level of real income. What will people do with this leisure time? Could we encourage creativity, and reinstate culture and art into the mainstream of modern society? This would hardly be the worst outcome.

In this time of political uncertainty, people are looking for alternatives to existing socio-political systems. The outcome of the US federal election and the Brexit referendum highlights an underlying issue of world leaders and their ability (or inability) to understand the needs of the people; these election outcomes echo the voices of those who feel like they have no voice.

The Humanities and social sciences, essentially the study of human relationships and culture, are the medium through which we can understand this modern ‘disconnect’, and change the notion of what leadership means today to something more meaningful than a reaction to populist loud voices.

The Future of Work

In the face of the precarious nature of our labour force future, our leaders need the Humanities to ‘synthesise complexity with meaning and emotion’ (Shultz 2016) and to engage the people in culture and the arts, and everything that is ‘human’.

2016 has been quite a year, what will 2017 bring?