The mutation of the workforce has already begun

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The fourth industrial revolution – the digitalisation of the economy – is set to radically transform or render obsolete half of all jobs in industrialised countries. As a result, Switzerland’s tertiary sector has been shedding jobs for 15 years.

This content was published on May 20, 2016 - 11:00
Duc-Quang Nguyen and Samuel Jaberg, swissinfo.ch

After mechanisation, electrisation and automation, digitalisation is the next major advanced technology to revolutionise the world of work. A study by Oxford University economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne found that in advanced economies, some 40% to 50% of jobs will either be transformed or disappear altogether. The World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that two thirds of children starting primary school today will work in professions which currently do not exist.

The digitalisation of services (e-banking, online ticketing, email, etc.) and the use of computing in the place of management have already caused the loss of more than 180,000 administrative positions in Switzerland over the last 15 years. Administrative jobs in Switzerland dropped from 15% of total jobs in 1991 to 9% in 2015. However, the so-called intellectual or scientific professions have more than doubled during the same period (+614,000 jobs out of a total 1,013,000 net jobs created during the period). Today they represent more than a quarter of the total jobs.

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The phenomenon is not specific to Switzerland. The trend is observed in all the industrialised countries. The graphic below illustrates the rise in Europe of jobs considered highly qualified and technical, to the detriment of agriculture, industry and jobs that are medium- or low-skilled.

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The disappearance of numerous jobs as a result of automation – for example cashier, translator, or ticket vendor – is a key argument put forward by supporters of the initiative for an unconditional basic income, which will be put to a popular vote on June 5. Proponents of the initiative point to a report presented at the most recent WEF in Davos which says 7.1 million jobs around the world could disappear over the next five years, two thirds of them in the administrative sector.

So-called intermediation jobs (banker, insurer, real estate agent, etc.) could also be heavily impacted by this trend. But despite the emergence of ‘fin tech’ (financial technology) and robotised advisors that automatise fortune management, the WEF report predicts an increase in jobs in finance, as well as in other key sectors such as IT, engineering and management. 

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While some people welcome a digital (r)evolution that will increase productivity and facilitate the lives of consumers, others, like anthropologist David Graeber from the London School of Economics, view the mutation of the workforce more critically.

In a scathing discussion paper on what he terms “bullshit jobs”, Graeber argues that a growing number of often highly qualified people are employed in useless or meaningless roles in human resources, management, law, quality assurance, finance, communications, or advisory positions; it is in these sectors that Graeber observes an inflation of “bullshit jobs”. Paradoxically, these are better remunerated than occupations which Graeber qualifies as really useful, such as nurses, teachers, garbage collectors, mechanics, or farmers.   

And there is another trend which should not be underestimated: the marked increase in jobs in the health and social services sectors (+354,000). This is mainly due to the ageing of the population, the ever-increasing demand for health services in general, and the demand for childcare outside of the family. A significant consequence of this trend is the shift of the workforce from the public to the private sector, which looks set to continue in the future. 

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Contact the authors via Twitter @duc_qn and @samueljaberg

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