Financial Data
Updated 29 Feb 2020

Will jobs really be impacted by the digital revolution?

Is the digital age, and the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, celebrated for its rich opportunity, or is it feared for its potential to render millions of jobs obsolete? It’s probably a bit of both, but should we really fear the latter? 

David Meintjies, 18 October 2017  Share  0 comments  Print

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Think back to the first industrial revolution, brought on by the advent of steam power, machined tools and factories. It was a new age for human development, but anyone who’s studied history will recall the fear workers felt. They were terrified by the prospect of being replaced and losing their livelihoods, many workers even grew violent as a result. What happened next was a new wave of prosperity and innovation, which saw more jobs created than anyone had ever believed possible at the time.

We’re coming full circle

Many of the same concerns have been raised once more, and in many ways, they’re justified. There’s no doubt that a stagnant global GDP and decelerating emerging markets are partially to blame for the rise in unemployment. Automation and AI will undoubtedly replace millions of jobs – not just blue-collar jobs either. 

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Globally, textile and manufacturing companies are already replacing factory workers with robotics and fully automated lines, capable of doing a better job at a lower cost and with less downtime. But digital automation, data analytics and access to managed services via the cloud is also replacing people in IT, ops, finance, and even management. 

Although AI is still in its infancy and its integration with business systems leaves much to be desired, it has the potential to replace jobs in fleet and transportation, retail, medicine, finance and engineering. Change doesn’t need to be negative, however. 

Jobs in disguise 

Jobs are unlikely to disappear. They’re much more likely to change, to take on new responsibilities as old ones fall away. So, there will always be roles for people, even if they’re assisting or managing robots, where once they were doing the job of the robot.

Out with the old, in with the new 

It’s hard to know exactly what new jobs will develop from this new digital era, but current trends point to a few exciting prospects. For one, 3D printing empowers even your most pedestrian mom-and-pop shop, to fill virtually any niche required by local market or supplement supply chains as flexible, cost effective SME suppliers. 

3D printing isn’t the only technology that will create new opportunities. Data and analytics, health and wellbeing, environmental sustainability, agriculture, and entertainment are all set to evolve, as technology like IoT, social networking, drones, blockchain, AI and automation alter them drastically.

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Remember that people will always need an income if they’re to continue buying goods and services; that means jobs. Companies cannot wholesale replace their entire workforces, not if they want a market to sell to. A popular international fast food chain is facing exactly that issue. Their massive workforce – millions strong – also happen to be some of their strongest customers, so replacing them is not ideal.

As long as there are goods and services people want, they will find new ways to prosper; and that innovation leads to new jobs for all.  

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About the author

David Meintjies

David Meintjes is a qualified Chartered Accountant who holds a masters degree in Business Management from the University of Johannesburg. He has been a key Internet business player from the start, serving as FD, Commercial Director and CEO of UUNET SA, the first commercial ISP in South Africa in 1996. After serving as COO of software development company Korbitec Holdings, David became chairman of Connectnet and MD of Connection Telecom. From January 2010 he took up an operational role in the business to support its rapid growth phase.

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