Welcome to the fight of the century.

In one corner there are the prophets of doom, who say that no job is safe from automation, and economic chaos is inevitable. And in the other corner, we have the rosy optimists, who believe technology will usher in a new era of meaningful work, more leisure time, and improved quality of life.

And in the center of the ring…you’ll find the rest of us.

The truth is, both the naysayers and the optimists have a point. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are already disrupting many industries and causing sweeping economic changes in certain segments. But they are also creating opportunities for people to learn new skills and have more interesting work—perhaps even in job categories that don’t yet exist.

We’ve been here before

If we look back to the industrial revolution, we can see how factories and urbanization displaced the traditional roles of craftsmen, farmers, bakers, and artisans. People naturally felt threatened as technology rendered their skills obsolete and disrupted the social and economic order. Yet once we weathered that transition, the 20th century economy created new opportunities—with jobs like autoworkers, airline pilots, and engine mechanics—that previous generations could never have imagined. This time is no different, the optimists argue. We’ll have short-term disruption, and then go on to even greater growth and productivity.

Well, that may be true. But try telling that to someone in Detroit or West Virginia. They were on the winning end of the industrial revolution in the last century, but the wheel has turned and now they are on the losing end of global disruption.

The effects of automation and AI are happening now. The U.S. steel industry, for example lost 400,000 jobs—75 percent of its workforce—between 1962 and 2005, while maintaining the same output. A new technology called the minimill was behind this job-killing productivity boost. And it’s not just in steel. A 2015 study from Ball State University said that U.S. workers lost 5.6 million U.S. jobs from 2000 to 2010 because of increased productivity across the spectrum of manufacturing.

Now, productivity is not a bad thing! But it does have an impact on employment. And while we could spend all day fretting over technology-driven job disruption, I’d prefer to focus on how to respond to it.

Silicon Valley must lead

Let’s start with the proposition that since technology is driving the disruption, technology can help us deal with it. A report from MIT predicts that AI will create as many new jobs as it eliminates. Like the industrial revolution, the report says, AI will create brand new jobs that never existed before. Imagine an “empathy trainer” for AI devices, or an AI ethics compliance auditor. Imagine an “explainer” who bridges the gulf between technology and business or government leaders. These new jobs aren’t just for those with technical skills. In fact, they rely on people with a liberal arts education to bring our humanity into AI applications.

Closer to the here and now, robots in Amazon’s warehouses are taking the heavy, repetitive jobs and creating opportunities for workers to do the more interesting work of monitoring and controlling the robots. Even with more than 100,000 robots in action around the world, Amazon continues to hire human workers at a dizzying rate.

Technology companies must lead in creating opportunities—whether through training and development programs, or by planning technology roadmaps that consider the human factor. A new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that 25 percent of workers in developed countries say their skills don’t match their current jobs—and 35 percent of the skills needed for jobs will change by 2020.

It’s time for Silicon Valley to step up and take responsibility for helping the world deal with the disruption we’ve created.  I’m proud that Cisco’s CEO Chuck Robbins is taking a leadership role in addressing this challenge. As chair of the WEF IT steering committee, he is leading an industry-wide global initiative on giving workers the skills they will need to be prepared for the new jobs of this century. He believes we can retrain masses of workers for the new jobs of the future. It’s a matter of vision and will.

The rise of the gig economy

As traditional jobs disappear, many people are moving into self-employment, freelancing, and task-based “gigs.” We need to take a new look at how we support workers in these non-traditional work roles. Shift: The Commission on Work, Workers, and Technology suggests this trend might give us the opportunity to “explore alternative arrangements: networks of small businesses, modern guilds, worker associations, and entrepreneurship training, while at the same time facilitating new ways to administer worker benefits.”

On the other hand, there is a dark side to the gig economy—“gigs” that are really full-time jobs with the benefits stripped away. The whole point of the gig economy is to be able to choose the work you want to do, when and where you want to do it. Hence, there is also a rise in lawsuits against the likes of Uber, pointing out the need for regulation to keep up with reality.

Cisco HR director Gianpaolo Barozzi has pointed out an interesting paradox: “…digital technologies are the potential cause for dramatic economic, employment and social collisions, drivers for a de-humanized future; at the same time they could be the force taking ‘work’ back to a much more human dimension.” By supporting the interconnected, yet self-directed work structures of the gig economy, Gianpaolo believes we enable human workers “to be the center and the core of the new world of work, yet keeping all the advantages of the post-industrial society and the economy we live in.”

Disruption of work is inevitable. It’s how we respond that matters.

It’s a choice

Disruption of work is inevitable. It’s how we respond that matters. We can focus on developing technologies that can complement and work alongside human workers. We can work hard at training and educating workers for the skills they will need. We can create new structures that support the needs of workers who are trying to make their own way in the gig economy.

The issue is ripe for innovation. That’s why we’re focusing on the Future of Work at our next Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs event. If you’re interested in co-creating industry-shifting solutions that can help shape the future, let’s talk.

Join the conversation on Twitter @katecokeeffe



Kate O'Keeffe

Senior Director

Customer and Partner Innovation