19 March 2018

Bruce Reed, co-chairman of the Future of Work Initiative at the Aspen Institute

Bruce ReedThe future of work is top of mind not just in Australia and the US but throughout the world.

For many of us, the future seems to offer a dazzling array of choices. We can decide when to work, we don’t have to dress up for work and we don’t even have to show up for work.

But for millions in your country and mine, what makes the future of work so frightening is that the life they’ve chosen is no longer on the list.

In some parts of the US, the working class is literally the canary in the coal mine for what happens to communities without enough jobs, skills, and hope to go around.

The US is the only developed country whose average lifespan is going down, not up, because white non-college-educated Americans are killing themselves at an alarming rate. White midlife mortality in Australia and elsewhere is flat. But in the U.S. it has doubled in the last 15 years.

Sociologists call them deaths of despair – suicides, alcoholism, and an opioid epidemic that killed more Americans last year than died in Vietnam. Among college grads, white midlife mortality hasn’t budged. All the increase has come among those whose education stopped in high school. For them, it has doubled among men and tripled among women.

These fears of the future of work are not new.

I co-chair an Aspen Institute project launched by Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to try to turn all that fear into real action.

Australian leaders share the same concern.

But it’s worth a moment to ponder why this subject has always been so important to us. In part, it’s because of our fascination with the future, our fear of the unknown. Yet the emotional hold the future of work has on us isn’t so much the future as it is work. We define our lives, our humanity, and our purpose around work, and we don’t know what we would do without it.

Think back, for example, to how we envisioned the 21st century 50 years ago, in the classic Saturday morning cartoon series, The Jetsons.

For those of us old enough to remember it, the Jetsons was the first time we ever imagined what it would be like to have a robot around the house or drive in space rather than on roads. Set in the year 2062, it was a completely automated society.

And yet every episode, the man of the house, George Jetson, would rely on those gadgets to brush his teeth, tie his tie, and hand him his lunch as he climbed into his spaceship to commute to work.

With all the robots, push buttons, and conveyor belts, there was only one hour of work a day for George to do.

George Jetson never seemed to work very hard, or do very much, but his life revolved around those few minutes of work. In a world of infinite possibilities, it gave him somewhere to be and something to do.

Same with The Flintstones – a cartoon set in the Stone Age, so technically it was more about the past of work. At the end of his shift at the Slate Rock and Gravel Company, Fred Flintstone slid down the tail of his brontosaurus crane, jumped into his stone age car, and ran home from work.

Or look at Star Wars. When it’s time for good to conquer evil, the Rebellion didn’t ask a drone to destroy the Death Star. That’s a human’s job. Only a brave heart like Luke Skywalker could take that shot.

From the stone age to the space age to the age of automation, the future of work poses the same challenge: Ask not what robots can do for humans. Ask what humans can do for ourselves and our humanity.

Universities will have a big say in how we answer that question. First, let me describe the future that’s already here.

In the last five years, the gig or on-demand economy has exploded throughout the world.

In the first three years of Uber and Lyft, the on-demand economy in the U.S. grew about 50-fold, doubling nearly every six months. Uber has more than one million drivers in the U.S. and Canada. Even so, the on-demand economy remains a small sliver of the U.S. workforce – around one to two per cent. Australia has about 60,000 Uber drivers, or about half a per cent.

For most people, the gig economy is a second job, a side hustle, not a way of life. Eighty per cent of Uber drivers are part-time. Most do it to top off their monthly income or to make ends meet.

The on-demand economy gets all the attention, but in some ways it’s just a software upgrade of an ageless operating system, the freelance economy. Both here and in the US, freelancers represent a third of the workforce. This, too, is a tale of joys and sorrows.

On the one hand, technology now makes it possible for skilled freelancers to make a better living fending for themselves than for a single company.

But not everyone has it so good. For many freelancers, freedom isn’t free. Many US companies now contract out unskilled jobs such as custodial and food services. The companies spend less and the workers get less.

Here in Australia, you have dubbed this sector ‘insecure work’. The Australia Institute says as much as half of the Australian labor force is in insecure work – either less than full-time or without basic entitlements such as paid leave and superannuation.

In both our countries, we’re seeing the confluence of trends that have been accelerating over the last decade – international competition, innovation, and automation. The freelance economy is the new assembly line – or perhaps we should call it the disassembly line: the disaggregation of work into discrete tasks that can be bid around the world. It’s a high-wire act.

In truth, we are only in the first inning of disruption. The epic question for the next quarter century is what the future of work will look like in the age of automation.

Will our lives look like George Jetson’s – where all our needs are taken care of and we spend an hour a day at the office just to get out of the house? Or in a world of autonomous everything, will we be the ones to lose our autonomy?

The question used to be, what will you do you grow up? The question now is, what will you do when the robots grow up?

The first backgrounds of this battle will be roads and stores. The US is in a mad rush to develop and perfect an autonomous car. In California, 42 companies have permits to test them on public roads. In Michigan, 2000 autonomous vehicles are driving the streets of Ann Arbor. In Pittsburgh, Uber built an entire fake city to test them.

Melbourne started testing autonomous cars last year. Both our countries have plenty of issues to work out that could make it take longer.

If you get a chance, check out an MIT website called Moral Machine, which is trying to sort out the ethical issues around autonomous driving. It has asked millions of people around the world a variation of the trolley problem – if an autonomous car is about to hit pedestrians in a crosswalk, should it swerve to avoid the young or the old, the law-abider or the jay walker, the human or the animal?

Every culture seems to favor the young. All favor humans over animals, though somewhat less so in the southern hemisphere. Interestingly, people in English-speaking countries show a much stronger preference to protect the law-abiding over the jaywalker.

It’s not only cars. Perth has a driverless bus. Boeing is testing autonomous planes. Rolls Royce is testing an autonomous ship. Here in Australia, Rio Tinto is testing autonomous trains.

The shift to autonomous trucks could be even more rapid and profound.

In November, Elon Musk unveiled Tesla’s plans for an electric, semi-autonomous truck.

A Silicon Valley company called Starsky Robotics is testing autonomous trucks in Florida that are operated remotely from a central headquarters, the way the armed forces operate drones over Afghanistan.

In the U.S., trucking is a booming AUD$200 billion business. Half that is in labour, so the industry is rushing to automate.

There’s one big problem: Truck driving is the biggest job in America. America has more than three million truckers. Truck driver is the most common occupation in 29 states.

Australia has 230,000 truck drivers. The Guardian called Australia the most truck dependent nation. Look at the hold it has on our culture and yours.

When truckers disappear, taxi, Uber, and bus drivers will be right behind them. You’ll be able to hail a driverless car.

Dubai just announced plans to replace taxis with single-passenger drones. George Jetson never had it so good.

The other great battlefront already underway is what will become of clerks and shopkeepers, the very people who created the middle class centuries ago. In America and Australia alike, one out of 10 workers work in the retail industry. That’s 1.3 million for you and 16 million for us. We don’t know how many of those jobs will survive Amazon.

Thanks largely to online shopping, the bottom is falling out of much of the retail industry. Nine thousand retail stores closed in US last year, more than double the year before. Another 12,000 are expected to shut down this year.

The economists remind us that we’ve always worried technology would destroy jobs, yet we’ve consistently created more than we lost. That may happen again – though we don’t know whether the gains from productivity and efficiency will be widely shared.

On the other hand, the job loss could be substantial. An Oxford study warns that nearly half of current jobs could be automated by mid-century. A recent survey showed that more than half of Americans aren’t sure their job will exist 20 years from now.

So, how do we keep from falling behind the future we’re inventing? How do we make work secure again?

The best vaccine for the future of work is to fortify the future of learning. Here are five observations on the future of learning.

First, the good news: learning matters more than ever – and universities will matter more than ever. The human race needs universities more than ever.

In uncertain economic times, we turn to education for reassurance. People’s first response to the rise of technology and globalisation has been to get more education for themselves.

In the US, for the first time, a larger proportion of workers now have a college degree than have a high school diploma or less.

Of 12 million jobs created since the Global Financial Crisis, more than 99 per cent went to workers with at least some college education; less than one per cent went to those who had only gone to high school.

So far, that strategy seems to help stave off the impacts of globalisation as well. The unemployment rate for college graduates is half that of high school graduates. Earnings are more than double. Net worth is four times as high.

We know that education is the best way to keep our head above water. The Oxford study warning that half of American jobs could be automated also forecasts that education level will be the decisive factor.

According to McKinsey, automation will affect everyone – one out of five with a college degree will be at risk, compared to 55 per cent of those with less than high school.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says 19 of the 30 fastest growing jobs – statistician, engineer, software developer – will require post-secondary education. Jobs requiring an advanced degree will grow three times faster than those with a high school diploma. The fate of the middle class depends on how many people we can push into the more educated category.

Second, the same forces that have disrupted work will disrupt learning. The value of university will rise, and the fundamental role of universities will not change. The explosion of education technology has shown that tech can enhance the educational experience, but can’t replace it. Teaching others is one of the things humans do best. Professors have little to fear from automation – and robots certainly have no desire to be vice-chancellors.

But don’t get too comfortable: The future is coming for you as well. You know that better than I. Our consumption patterns will change in higher education the way they are changing with everything else. We’ll demand more choices in what and how we can learn, more flexibility in when we can learn it, and more value for the dollars we spend on it. And once you give us more options and more flexibility, we’re going to rely on you (and our employers) more heavily than ever to curate the content for us, tell us what to trust, and help us figure out what we should consume next.

In the US, that disruption of learning is still in its early stages. We’ve seen an explosion of online courses, but no great shift yet in the degree programs universities offer. This year, Purdue University in Indiana became the first major state university to offer what for Americans is a radical idea – a three-year undergraduate degree. US universities vehemently resist that idea because they depend on four years of tuition to make ends meet. Middle-class parents and students like the idea for the same reason – a three-year degree could cut the cost of college by a quarter.

Once we start rethinking how well we’re using the college years, we’ll ask the same questions of high school. For a century, the US has awarded high school degrees on the basis of credit hours we call the Carnegie Unit. A high school diploma doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve learned the material. It just means you’ve sat in class 120 hours a year for four years. Andrew Carnegie proposed that measure in 1905 because he wanted to help establish a pension system for college professors, and higher education was such a new and rare thing, he needed a way to distinguish between high schools and colleges – hence the Carnegie Unit.

A century later we find ourselves in the opposite bind. Colleges and employers want to know how much students are learning, not just whether they’ve done the time. In the US the Carnegie Unit has become a speed limit for students who can master the high school curriculum more quickly and would love to start doing college coursework for college credit while still in high school.

Arizona State University, one of our most pioneering innovators, gives high school students the option to do this. A century ago, we created the Carnegie Unit to draw a clear line between high school and college. Now we want to blur that line so students can get the utmost from their combined secondary and tertiary experience.

Third, the line between work and learning will blur as well. The future of work and the future of learning are destined to merge. In a world where work is episodic and insecure, learning must be lifelong and certain.

Employers used to play the role of lifelong university, teaching workers the skills they needed to get and stay ahead. That is no longer the rule but the exception. Businesses are extremely good at training their employees for the specific job they need them to do. But in the US at least, most companies do little to train workers for their next job or for what they want to be. They worry that if they invest in you, you’ll take a better job somewhere else.

As a result, lifelong learning will become a crucial part of universities’ mission. It wouldn’t surprise me if universities start to offer undergraduates a lifelong guarantee. When you’re young, we’ll teach you how to think. When you’re looking to change careers, we’ll teach you the skills you need to get a better one.

Perhaps you’ll offer micro-degrees tailored to a specific career credential.

Coding boot camps have grown 10-fold in the last five years.

Udacity offers a nanodegree in Flying Cars and Autonomous Flight.

Clearly, micro-degrees are no substitute for the broad foundation of a full three to four-year undergraduate education. But they’re an extraordinarily popular innovation for adults who need an employable skill.

Fourth, employers will have to adapt and do their part as well. In the US two employers are forging a new path. Toyota was so eager to find employees with advanced manufacturing skills that it joined with other employers to form its own advanced manufacturing certificate program for undergraduates. Students who want to learn a trade rather than go to traditional university enroll in the program.

Toyota and other participating employers hire them to work part-time at their factories, but also pay them part-time to learn the technical skills they’ll need for the profession. They graduate in two years with the equivalent of an Associate degree, and can remain with the program to learn higher degrees as well. The program began in Louisville, Kentucky. Now there are 14 programs in eight states.

Starbucks wanted to reduce turnover among its baristas, so it did something companies rarely do: In partnership with Arizona State, it offered to pay for employees to complete their university education, even if they were majoring in a field unrelated to their work at the company.

As the Mitchell Institute has pointed out, the UK is experimenting with degree apprenticeships in highly skilled fields such as technology and banking. Employers, universities, and professional associations team up to develop new bachelors or advanced degrees combined with employment.

A Foundation for Young Australians report on “The New Work Order” estimates that by 2030 we’ll need to spend an average of 13 hours every work week learning. From now on, learning can’t stop when you go to work. Even if you’re in the gig economy, learning will need to be one of your gigs.

Fifth and lastly, higher learning will focus more than ever on its higher calling. The humanities aren’t all that’s at stake. So is our humanity. The biggest test for society and for institutions of learning will be honing the skills that keep us human.

In many ways, the future of work will force us all to be more practical, or at least more intentional. Disruption will make universities become more efficient, offer more choice, and deliver better value.

But at the same time, it will increase the urgency that universities fulfill what has always been their highest calling: to set us on a course to realise our potential as humans. You don’t just fill our minds with facts. Universities teach us what our minds can do, and why the mind matters.

Universities will be the Jedi masters who teach us to look inward for the strengths we need to survive and adapt. Universities hone the skills that hold up best and are the hardest to automate: Critical thinking, curiosity, judgment, a willingness to challenge orthodoxy. Universities teach us the skills robots won’t learn unless we teach them: Collaboration, emotional intelligence, the value of community and service, the search for meaning.

We can and should celebrate our technology, but it does not define us. Life is not a software issue or a series of engineering challenges. It’s one thing for AI to model climate change and figure out which variables need to be tweaked to reverse it. It’s another matter to figure out how to persuade an entire planet of seven billion people and 200 countries to act in humanity’s collective interest.

In the end, universities will still matter to us for all the reasons the future of work and the future of humanity matter so much to us. The quest to make the most of our lives is at the heart of what unites our two nations and defines the Australian and American character. We believe in the enduring power of individual acts of will, working in common cause to higher purpose.

That autonomy of human spirit is the flame universities have lit for centuries, and the light we will need to guide us more than ever. The autonomous cars, trucks, and planes of tomorrow are no match for the autonomous human lives and minds universities develop. With the help of universities, we’ll always keep a hand on the wheel of our own lives.

We won’t just be pushing buttons. We’ll keep pushing the boundaries of the universe and the bounds of what’s possible.

This is an edited extract of the keynote address to the 2018 Universities Australia Higher Education Conference.