A World Without Work

Technological advances axe jobs, requiring new skills

by Peter Merrill

A report on the future of jobs was published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January, and it showed dramatic changes over the next five years with regard to the nature and location of jobs.1 In his book, The Industries of the Future, author Alec Ross wrote that 10 years from now, 65% of jobs will be roles that don’t exist today.

If your job contains quality control in its title, start looking around fast. New businesses need skills such as creativity, complex problem solving and emotional intelligence.

All of this is happening because we are entering the fourth industrial revolution (see Figure 1). This revolution is driven by advances in big data, smart technology and artificial intelligence (AI). And the 3-D printer shows how new tools are making mass production and economies of scale a thing of the past.

Figure 1

Big data analysis and the Internet of Things (IoT) are leading to innovations such as the smart factory, which is operated by cyber-physical systems and controlled through virtual models. Robotics and AI are developing at incredible speeds, meaning the jobs we perform in 2020 will be entirely different from today’s jobs.

The idea of intelligent machines was introduced in 1955. It was based on the work of Alan Turing—who broke Germany’s ciphers produced by its Enigma Machine during World War II—the subject of the 2014 movie, "The Imitation Game."2 Turing also was among the first individuals to propose the theory of computation, which deals with a computer program’s efficiency in solving problems.3

The dawn of AI

AI developed slowly over the following decades, but after 2000, computing power rapidly increased. Today, AI is present in Google searches4 and some voice recognition applications.5 More complex examples have defeated human professionals in games of chess and "Go."6 AI is an interesting blend of disciplines, such as computer science, math, psychology, linguistics, philosophy and neuroscience.

Humans, however, are still far more capable of fast, intuitive judgment because of one remarkable attribute—common sense. This unique trait is based on the enormous body of knowledge and experience a person carries. Nothing is simply true or false, and our instinct is a powerful attribute. Chess players, for example, feel threats from their opponents’ unexpected moves. An artist can mix colors, which stirs emotions. Instinct is something we don’t fully understand, but we know it is real. Good leaders have good instincts. People who excel in sports do so through instinct.

There are challenges ahead for AI, such as gaining social intelligence and creative thinking. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking suggested humans should never allocate moral responsibility to AI.7 We see it in science fiction, but the point is that we shudder at the thought of a world controlled by amoral robotics.

Expanding divides

What does all of this mean to the world of work and the future of our careers? Work matters. It gives our lives meaning. But if we eliminate our jobs, we increase inequality.

There’s evidence of this happening today. The gap is widening between individuals with extreme wealth and those living in poverty, and it’s creating significant social pressures.8

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 we would have three-hour work days.9 But there wasn’t a guarantee the work would be equally spread out. 

Today’s wealthy nations are benefiting from this shift, and poor economies are suffering. There is no law on the equality of benefits, and this is leading to political tensions on a global scale.

There’s increasing pressure on low-paying jobs, and there will likely be "on shoring" of work from India and China in the future.10 But these returning jobs won’t be the same as the ones that originally moved, reminding me of a line from the song "My Home Town" by Bruce Springsteen: "Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back."

Middle-skill service jobs will be replaced by AI globally. It’s predicted that 7 million jobs will be eliminated in five years.11 For example, today’s typically poor speech-recognition software used in call centers will eventually become more functional. But there are limitations for AI’s applications.

Limitations and knowledge

I often visit a nice Japanese restaurant where I’m given an iPad instead of a menu. I pick my food, send my order to the kitchen via Wi-Fi, and a smiling server eventually brings my meal. I do not see fine dining becoming a robotic experience in which the meal arrives on a conveyer belt.

To take advantage of these developments, people need skills, adaptability and a willingness to acquire new knowledge that can be applied to tomorrow’s job market.

You must be cognizant of which career paths will grow or decline. The WEF predicts jobs in engineering and math will grow significantly, while office and manufacturing roles will decline (see Figure 2). Perhaps more importantly, we should be aware of the personal skill sets that will be in demand by year 2020.

Figure 2

Chart toppers

The WEF’s skill ratings show some interesting trends from 2015 to 2020 (see Table 1). It’s a bit like looking at a top-hits chart for music, and one chart-topping skill is creativity—10th place in 2015 and third in 2020. This is what employers will want in their employees, which also was reflected in a 2010 IBM CEO Study12 and more recently by a 2014 Pricewaterhouse-Coopers CEO survey.13

Table 1

Another skill predicted to climb in importance is emotional intelligence. Complex problem solving, however, remained at No. 1 on both charts. All of these skills are attributes of an innovator.

Have you noticed what’s missing from the 2020 portion of the table? Quality control is in sixth place on the 2015 chart, but it falls off the list in 2020. This reflects how AI will increasingly deal with data collection and analysis, and it signals a need to develop new skills in our profession—especially with regard to creativity.

Straight away, I can hear someone say, "Well, creativity is a part of someone’s nature, not something that’s nurtured." Not true. People are born creative, and it was "nurtured out" through their educational systems.

Albert Einstein famously said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."14 Creativity means finding solutions through imagination and an unconventional approach. This occurs if we have freedom to think and can interact with new stimuli.

Unfortunately, our daily work has removed that from us, and we must step out of the box to become creative. We explore to learn and to meet people who are different from ourselves. We have learned that through collaboration and collective knowledge, it’s possible to produce radical new solutions. People must be willing to try out their radical solutions, however, and be willing to fail.

There is good news: CEOs are well aware of the need for creativity and innovation. Organizations are starting to build concepts such as social innovation into their business strategies. They know this is necessary to restore stakeholder trust and to attract millennials—vital to the future of business.

So what does this mean for quality professionals’ careers? The digital economy is producing many opportunities for entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship. In truth, eliminating nonessential work has enormous social benefits, and we can finally say goodbye to Taylorism. There are going to be many new R&D jobs, and engineering and new technologies will lead to new careers.

Visit the Innovation Division website (http://asq.org/innovation-group) to learn more about creativity and innovation, and see where you fit in tomorrow’s job market. As a quality professional, it’s likely you could be a connector—that is, a person who is good at finding conceptual solutions—and you are probably far more creative than you realize.


  1. World Economic Forum (WEF), "The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution," WEF report, January 2016, http://tinyurl.com/futurejobsreport-wec.
  2. Wikipedia, "Alan Turing," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/alan_turing.
  3. Wikipedia, "Theory of Computation," https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/theory_of_computation.
  4. Danny Sullivan, "Meet RankBrain: The Artificial Intelligence That’s Now Processing Google Search Results," Searchengineland.com, Oct. 26, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/google-ai-searchengine.
  5. Mohammad Al-Raba Bah and Abdusamad Al-Marghilani, "Artificial Intelligence Technique for Speech Recognition Based on Neural Networks," Oriental Journal of Computer Science and Technology, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 331-336.
  6. Danielle Muoio, "Why Go Is So Much Harder for AI to Beat Than Chess," Techinsider.io, March 10, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/chess-go-ai.
  7. Michael Sainato, "Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates Warn About Artificial Intelligence," Observer.com, Aug. 19, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/hawking-ai-warning.
  8. Anthony Reuben, "Gap Between Rich and Poor Keeps Growing," BBC.com, May 21, 2015, www.bbc.com/news/business-32824770.
  9. Larry Elliott, "Economics: Whatever Happened to Keynes’ 15-Hour Working Week?" Theguardian.com, Aug. 31, 2008, www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics.
  10. WEF, "The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution," see reference 1.
  11. Ibid.
  12. IBM, "Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights From the Global Chief Executive Officer Study," report, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/ibm-2010-ceo-study.
  13. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, "Business Success Beyond the Short Term: CEOs Perspectives on Sustainability," report, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/pwc-17-ceo-survey.
  14. "Albert Einstein Quotes," Brainyquote.com, http://tinyurl.com/einstein-brainyquote.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009) and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank.

Peter touched on many of these points while speaking from the audience during ITAG earlier this year. A must-read for quality professionals.
--Jan Sadlon, 07-26-2016

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