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  • Brussels blog
  • 01-02-2018

The fourth industrial revolution, commonly referred to as the digital revolution, is often in the news and will give rise to a number of major challenges.

The digital revolution is characterised by the rise of advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, big data and data analytics. These new technologies will result in increasing convergence of the physical and virtual worlds and will transform the way we live, work and interact. 

The impact of technological advancements on the labour market
Recent developments at Carrefour are being widely covered by the national and international press and invariably a link is made between the loss of thousands of jobs and the need to ramp up digital investment. Indeed, the impact of technological advancements on the labour market cannot be underestimated. One of the biggest fears is that digitalisation and new technologies will inevitably give rise to technological unemployment or the loss of jobs due to technological changes. The main challenge in that respect is to convert lost jobs into new opportunities.

Which jobs will be automated first?
Jobs performed by less skilled workers are sometimes considered dangerous or dull. These are the types of jobs that can quite easily be performed by robots. A typical example is manufacturing, a sector in which many jobs are repetitive in nature. Although the digital revolution will of course create new jobs, a certain segment of the population currently lacks the specialised skills required to take advantage of these new opportunities.

No one will be spared
The media and social media tend to focus mainly on unskilled workers when discussing the impact of new technologies on the labour market. However, make no mistake about it, all jobs - including those that currently require the most highly qualified and skilled workers - and business models will be affected by the digital revolution and automation. The clerical, retail, professional and financial services sectors, to name but a few, will all be impacted. The same holds true for professions such as notaries, lawyers, doctors, accountants, bailiffs and their staff. The more standard or repetitive a function or process is, the greater the chance it will be affected by digital transformation and automation. Consequently, in the coming years, managers, employees, consultants, entrepreneurs and civil servants will all be challenged and forced to evolve. Those who are best able to adapt to the new digital environment will prosper. Those who fail to embrace digital technologies will struggle or even disappear. This is what Darwin termed natural selection. 

New jobs will be created
Unsurprisingly, most of the new jobs created by the digital revolution are expected to require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. It goes without saying that it will be difficult to retrain less highly educated workers to perform new jobs which require such a demanding skillset. 

As was the case in previous industrial revolutions, in the long term, the digital revolution will likely create more and more interesting jobs. However, in the short term, it is feared that job losses may exceed those created. Societies should acknowledge as much and take the appropriate measures to mitigate, insofar as possible, short-term employment imbalances (and other adverse effects) created by the digital revolution.

Career-long learning as a means of outsmarting automation
As the job opportunities available to less educated workers are expected to further decrease, the gap between skilled and unskilled workers and, consequently, the income gap between rich and poor will continue to grow. A vicious circle will be created as growing unemployment renders access to education more difficult and thus it becomes harder to get out of poverty.

Consequently, priority should be given to fighting inequality and preventing the new employment crisis which appears to be looming on the horizon. It is important to take an active stance in this regard, not by protecting jobs from technology but by stimulating the development of digital skills and investing in retraining and in career-long learning and development programs. Another priority is the reorientation of our educational system in order to avoid a potential mismatch between available jobs and skills. Finally, society as a whole must adapt to fit the digital era which will impact our tax system (should robots be taxed?), our legal system (should robots have legal personality? See also our view on additional leisure time (voluntary work, mindfulness, health, etc.).

The future looks bright, but only for the tech savvy and digitally skilled.   

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