Modernization can be a double-edged sword. During the Industrial Revolutions of the 19th century, many benefited from a sudden availability of affordable, mass-produced goods. Living standards improved and nations became wealthy. Yet, behind all of this stood many groups that, almost overnight, found themselves jobless or in dire straits. Blacksmiths, artisans, craftsmen and other traditional trades abruptly faced their obsolescence. Not only that but their independence, autonomy and unique skills became meaningless as they were pressed to become just another pair of hands in the standardized assembly line. Today we face a similar predicament with the Digital Revolution and no nation is safe.
Recognizing Our Vulnerability
Whereas the Industrial Revolution standardized the manufacturing process the Digital Revolution threatens to render the worker or labourer obsolete entirely. In time, a factory or commercial enterprise could be entirely machine run with the human presence being a supervisor and tech for maintenance. What was once the stuff of science fiction is fast becoming reality. In the US for example, we’ve recently witnessed major corporations like Mc Donald’s, KFC, Amazon, logistics companies and so on increasingly replace semi-skilled and unskilled labour with robots according to a piece by Forbes. For now, the service and comfort industry, upon which many SID’s (Small Island Developing States) rely, has yet to be overtaken by this modernization wave. However, it’s a question of when not if.
In fact, robots aren’t the only threat. Digitization has allowed economic activity and even public services to become available via the internet. For example, a piece by McKinsey and Company highlights this by noting the development of AI algorithms that are able to smartly and efficiently respond to customer service needs. Said study notes that anywhere between 10 million to 800 million jobs could be displaced globally by 2030 based on the rate of technology adoption by nations and companies. In furthering this point, a recent BBC analysis postulates that by 2030 more than 20 million factory jobs will become obsolete in the world’s most powerful economies due to the introduction of robots and AI.
The Caribbean, being a region heavily reliant on foreign investment due to size and small domestic pools of capital, is not an exception to this. Many of these multi-national operators and companies will unsurprisingly seek to maximize their profit and service potential through the adoption of cutting edge tech. While their increased growth and profit would mean more tax revenue and investment based foreign exchange for lucrative host nations, the dilemma now becomes one of properly distributing this wealth across an increasingly vulnerable populace.
Searching For Solutions
According to the aforementioned McKinsey study, the good news is that for most occupations, only about 60% of its activity can be fully automated. This means there’s still a job market and still a need for human labour. On the downside, such a scenario would mean vastly oversaturated job markets where the bulk of job seekers all gravitate to a shrinking range of known professions.
Realistically speaking, no matter how one assesses things, adaptation and evolution would be required on the part of nations and individuals. What this means is that people, be they young or old, would likely have to learn and develop new skills in order to continue being employable. On the flip side, an analysis from SingularityHub postulates that while some jobs will be lost, this new wave of development will also create new jobs as well just like industrialization, electricity and other technological advances reshaped job markets.
The Importance Of Proactive Action
Such a prediction isn’t farfetched and, to pre-empt this, Caribbean societies need to begin placing a greater educational onus on ICT learning. Schools must begin reassessing their priorities from the olden ‘English Grammar School’ model or pure sciences focus and begin delving more into fields such as IT, Computer Sciences, programming languages, graphic design, web design and so on. This applies not just to the primary and secondary schooling of youths but also to adults who will undoubtedly need to adjust their skillset.
This educational focus is tantamount to our economic future and should not merely encompass youths alone. Rather, courses, skills training, diplomas and other means of learning should be, both by state and private stakeholders, made accessible to everyone of all ages. Thus, this will allow adults to retool or at the very least, upgrade their skillset. Being more marketable in the world of work is becoming more and more imperative, especially in the Digital Era. This leads us to our next point and that’s the job losses that would result from increased Digitization alone, irrespective of AI or robotics. Both the public and private sector will experience this efficiency upgrade at the cost of jobs whether the transition occurs quickly or extremely slowly.
On the other hand, as societies become more advanced and developed, we tend to notice a gradual decrease in birth rates. This has led to the most technologically thriving and prosperous having an ‘aged populace’. That is, an increasing number of the general population is elderly, sometimes outnumbering youths with Japan and Germany being ideal examples of this. Consequently, such a trend would lead to a smaller workforce and, put simply, the situation may balance itself out as automation and AI steadily work its way into the economy.
However, this is not guaranteed to occur and some societies have even proposed a ‘universal income’ as was trialed in Finland where everyone was granted a ‘no strings attached’ stipend of $640USD per month. Regardless, such a path would require a considerable degree of development and wealth that has yet to be achieved. For now, regional bodies should look to begin safeguarding themselves from the economic shocks of global development through pre-emptive educational initiatives and diversification of economic systems.