What can governments do when labour isn't working?

What did you want to be when you were younger? Me, I wanted to be an astronaut: a far cry from management consultancy, to be sure. (Interestingly, that role is now being performed exceedingly well by machines and robots – from the Rover on Mars to Cassini in Saturn.)

The trouble is, today’s ambition is one thing, tomorrow’s reality looks set to be quite another. Human beings used to be able to count on the knowledge that adulthood would splinter into a wealth of employment opportunities. No longer. Automation is sweeping all before it, rendering many jobs obsolete and leaving the functions of industries and government transformed. And that’s not even counting the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence which is fast taking root in countries large and small.

As a result, at the same time as governments are embracing digitisation in their own operations and creating new citizen-centric services, they are facing questions aplenty. How will older citizens be cared for when younger people may find it hard to find work? How will the invidious scar of inequality be addressed when highly skilled workers earn more and those less skilled are left behind? How can individuals adapt to changing roles throughout their careers?

Such questions are broad in scope and offer no easy answers. One thing’s for sure, this is no time for caution – governments have to think big, starting now. There’s no time to waste.

Back to school

Education and workforce training seem like a sensible place to start. Now, this is easier said than done. The pace of change means that predicting the types and numbers of workers who will be needed in ten years is nigh on impossible, let alone further out than that. So what we need is a system that is agile enough to adapt to fluctuating labour markets, and a reset of workforce training and education so that lifelong learning becomes the norm rather than the exception.

It can be done. I live in Singapore, so I am well aware of the government’s attempts to prepare citizens for the turbulence ahead. Of particular note is the SkillsFuture initiative, which aims to help Singaporeans receive the training or certification required to remain marketable, whether they are just starting their careers, are in the middle of their working life, or are looking to remain employable in their later years.

But if such programmes are to succeed, then individuals themselves must be able to adapt to different roles – and even professions – while labour demand is constantly changing. BCG research predicts that millennials, for example, will have on average 17 different jobs and 5 different careers over the course of their lifetime. This means that countries need to rethink the traditional education system. It needs to start at an earlier age, and memorisation and rote learning need to be replaced by approaches that foster creativity, critical thinking and collaboration – as in Finland, for example.

Economic development, too, is ripe for reform. Governments must identify new economic development strategies that reflect their country’s specific advantages and opportunities. The good news is that some – like – are already doing so.

Go big or go home

NGOs are driving forward-looking debates around how the basic education system must change, but governments now need to start getting more involved in such discussions. And this means that they have to be willing to consider and perhaps embrace radical options that would have been rejected out of hand by their predecessors.

For example, policymakers in Finland – yes, them again – are testing the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a way to manage the job losses caused by automation. Canada, Brazil, the Netherlands, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa are not far behind. Although Swiss voters rejected the idea of a UBI last year (citing concerns over lost productivity), what if it were used to fund education and training for every citizen? What if citizens received UBI to engage in other worthwhile pursuits (though not ones always considered to be of direct economic value) like looking after the environment, the disadvantaged, or the arts? I think that’s an idea that could rapidly gain some traction.

And what about the management of government’s vast – and often underutilised – assets? My colleague Dag Detter has already identified how cities can use assets like public transport and utilities to yield increased revenues for new infrastructure, but such funds could equally be used for investments in education and workforce retraining.

Neither of these ideas on their own holds the key to the significant challenges governments face. But they offer a route forwards, one that can kickstart the necessary conversations as policymakers seek to help their citizens adapt to the changes fast bearing down on them.

Fortunately, there is reason for optimism. Countries around the world have tested and embraced policies that have great potential to build flexible workforces. Ultimately, government leaders need to confront the impending disruption head-on and deploy strategies focused on the individual. Training will need to be worker-centred, education will need to be learner-centred, and government services will need to be citizen-centric.

Should our political leaders achieve these goals, then the career ambitions of today’s children will – hopefully – be able to move from aspiration to reality in the years and decades to come.

 

 

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