Sunday, April 12, 2015

Get Smart … or be left behind.

During the winter this year, I spent a significant amount of time researching developments in technology and the impacts those advancements are having on our society. In all realms of human activity from medical science to how we work, communicate and produce - technology is changing and will continue to change our patterns of behavior. One consistent theme woven through most of these articles or news stories has been humanity’s increasing reliance upon technology for our very existence. Developed nations have embraced technological advancements, to the point where we have great difficulty conducting our day to day lives without them. Imagine a week without your smart-phone or tablet by your side?

Modern communication (email, texting and messaging) is now prolific to a point of being a daily task that is never really “complete”. Large retailers are closing nationwide due to on-line shopping and other consumer trends. Future Shop is the best recent example. Social networks are now considered primary sources of news and in many ways - they have replaced the real life interaction of service groups and clubs that people would previously join. The average Canadian no longer hand writes anything other than their signature or a to-do list. These are fundamental shifts in human interaction that are changing the way we live. Most of these shifts have been for the greater good, some have produced negative consequences that were unintended. For those who choose not to or simply cannot keep up with these shifts – everyday life becomes more challenging to navigate. When translated into the realm of work and productivity, it becomes increasingly more difficult for those who are not tech savvy to earn wages that support a "middle class" lifestyle. The cost of living continues to rise as non-skilled wages decline and everyday necessities become harder for the under-employed to obtain. This lack of adaptation could result in an entirely new societal class born out of a form of techno-serfdom.

If you take nothing else away from this entry, please just consider the following questions:
1. What will the future of employment be like in 10 years for those who are not technologically literate?

2. What will my non-work life look like if I resist the systems that the rest of society is using?

3. What skills do I need to be productive in a society that is valuing consumption less, conservation more and knowledge as currency?


I asked myself these questions and while the answers were unsettling, the solutions on a personal level are even more elusive. How do we prepare for the jobs of the future that have not even been created yet? My personal solution is that I have resolved to be a life-time learner. Not only because it is a fulfilling pursuit, but because I am of the firm belief that it is becoming a requirement for 21st century living. Those who are not open to personal growth and cling to the “Norman Rockwell” comfy ideals of the past may find themselves as a casualty of the technology revolution. When society no longer values certain types of work, the market wages for that work begins to decline as an oversupply of workers fills the job market. We are seeing this happen in the US right now and to some degree Canada. This is the thin end of the wedge in my opinion as robotics advance and the methods of production and retail change to “self-made” products. In five years you won’t be ordering your products online from Amazon and have them delivered by drones (currently being tested in BC), you will simply buy the design or pattern online and your 3D printer will build it on your kitchen table. This type of advancement alone will radically change the factories of the world, causing immense problems for countries like China and Mexico.

What happens then when this mass of unskilled workers cannot find jobs? Some will seek refuge by moving to another location to find work. I think we can all say that we know someone who has sought opportunity and prosperity in the northern oilfields of Alberta. What will they do now if oil prices remain stagnant? Where will they go? What if California’s increasingly severe drought begins to push workers north in search of employment? I know these thoughts are not necessarily causal to each other but they are relevant to each other in that they contribute to an increasingly more competitive job market with fewer places for the unskilled. Technological skill will rule the job market as society continues to automate and our lives are increasingly managed more by applications than human interactions. The societal imperative then becomes one of increasing the collective knowledge of our population at a rate that matches the pace of innovation in technology. On a personal level, the only way to keep pace is to constantly seek new knowledge, however you can. Look forward, not backward to a time when life was easier. Find a way to create value for others with your ideas. Learn to problem solve and think critically in your current job and you will at least be in the game as the wave of change continues.

No one can accurately predict the future but we can see the trends that are emerging and proactively respond. We need to accept that change is the only constant in modern life and not fight it. Only then can we begin to adapt and evolve to the best of our natural abilities and limitations, because we truly are now living in Huxley’s Brave New World – or at least a kinder and gentler version of it known as the “Knowledge Economy”.
My mantra for dealing with this rapid change remains – “Get smart … or be left behind”.
Don’t be the modern equivalent of that person who never figured out how to set the clock on their VCR.


Kevin Jolly