Automation and our jobless futures

Sohail Inayatullah

Professor Tamkang University, Taiwan; The University of the Sunshine Coast, Sippy Downs; and Melbourne Business School, The University of Melbourne.  Also Director, metafuture.org



A recent report by the Foundation for Young Australian provides three dramatic forecasts. These are: [i]

  • 44 per cent of jobs will be automated in the next 10 years
  • 60 per cent of students are chasing careers that won’t exist
  • Young people will have an average of 17 different jobs



While forecasts like these are normally reserved for predictive futurists, the dramatic nature of disruption that the world has experienced the last twenty years has made change the norm. If we go back twenty years ago to the early 1990s, a number of significant changes were just beginning that have been instrumental in creating the world we live in today. These included:

1. the fall of the Berlin wall, the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the eventual integration of much of Eastern Europe into the European Union.

2. The beginning of the worldwideweb creating now a world where the pivotal issue today is  the virtual entering the material world – “leaving the screen”, the creation of the internet of things, persons and systems – the full digitalization of information and the perhaps the realization of the hundred year dream of the HG Well’s The World Brain.[ii]

3. The beginning of the human genome project, creating a world where prevention becomes the norm and every Australian born in 2025 could receive a full life map of personalized genetic risk factors.

4. The rise of China (and to some extent India), with China moving from a peripheral global economic player – from twenty billion in foreign reserves to nearly four trillion [iii]and rapidly becoming the largest economy in the world.

5. The beginning of ageing throughout the Western world and East Asia, leading to a number of issues including depopulation with entire European villages for sale for under 100,000 euros,[iv] lifelong learning, and the quite dramatic shift from there being enough young people to pay for the pensions of the aged, to there being a lack of young people to pay for pensions. The lack of young people impacts not just the superannuation formula  (the worker-retiree ratio) but decreasing enrolments in the education sector, among other factors.

6. The beginning of what we now call international terrorism with the Arab CIA recruits eventually becoming Al-Qaeda, uniting with the Taliban, and further disruptions in Iraq and Syria leading to the rise of Daesh. The result of the inability of find a geopolitical solution then leading to the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two, indeed, calling into question the entire European project. With Russia now joining the war in the Middle-East, we can easily anticipate Afghanistan 2.0.

7. The 90s also began the great boom – from globalization, from the peace dividend, and from the imagination of the “end of history,” of social and political conflict. But history as it turned out would not end, instead, a global financial crisis resulted, caused by

a. the shift of the world economy to China,

b. disintermediation created by the new digital and robotic technologies,

c. the shift from coal and oil to the new renewables,

d.  lack of global and national regulation of financial institutions, and,

e. speculative bubbles in housing.

The result for education has been a shift from education has an investment to education as an expense. Governments throughout the world have been reducing their expenditures in education, as they deal with increased social security costs and security costs (from the reality and the imagination of international terrorism).[v]

To deal with the new reality of decreased government subsidies, in 2015, universities find themselves moving toward virtual learning with the intention of having more students with less labour costs, and continuing to expand to new areas -the emerging markets where the demand for education is insatiable.[vi] At the same time, to deal with drop in government funding, there is the continued causalization of the workforce, with more being demanded for less. [vii] In Australia, ‘‘casualization’’ is now 60 percent of the higher education workforce (Luyt et al., 2008).[viii] Comparing the university to the garment industry, Patricia Kelly calls casual lecturers ‘‘piece workers of the mind’’ (Kelly, 2011).[ix]



These trends are unlikely to stop in the next ten years.[x]  The number of students enrolled in higher education, for example, is likely to double to 262 million by 2025, with most the growth in developing nations such as India and China.[xi] Over 8 million of these students will travel to other countries. [xii]The market size for global education was 2.5 trillion dollars in 2011[xiii] and is now 4.4 trillion us dollars. It is expected to continue to grow with e-learning projected to grow by 23%. [xiv]





We can thus expect more digitalization and virtualization (and with holograms and virtual technology) far more high-tech-soft touch experiences. We can also expect the continued globalization of education with providers at high school and university levels coming from all over the world, competing for the student dollar. Disruptions are likely. Perhaps it will as with uber, airbnb, snapgoods[xv] and other aspects of the sharing economy, where formal providers – the universities – are disrupted by peer-to-peer app based networks. The means a world where learning is, where you want it, when you want it, how you want it, and at cheaper costs. Education may also be disrupted by the major players – Alibaba, Google, Facebook – who could offer degree courses not just for employees or training but doctoral courses. Of course, national accreditation remains the barrier. While this barrier may be feudal, the debate in the next ten years will be can it be broken, can the castle walls of the university be broached by the new tech “bedouins”. They may be innovators or barbarians but the castle will be challenged.

And, youth expect this to be so. Having grown up in digital environments where the user and connectivity adds value, these digital natives will be in positions of executive power throughout the world by 2025-2030. While there are always pendulum shifts to the” good old days” of the industrial era, in 15 years: ipads and iphones will not be considered new technologies, but like chairs and tables, part of the infrastructure, what is expected.[xvi]

But which jobs are least likely to be automated? According to a recent article by the website Planet Money,[xvii] “mental health and substance abuse social workers” are least like to be replaced as the work involves “cleverness, negotiation, and helping others.” As well elementary schools teachers are extremely unlikely to be roboticized, while librarians have higher than a 50% chance to be automated. However, as digital natives come to power, the odds for automation are likely to increase (not to mention the pressures from globalization).  Moshe Vardi, director of the Institute for Information Technology at Rice University, asks if we are prepared for ” a global economy …with 50% unemployment.”[xviii] Ten percent of American jobs will disappear due to driverless cars, to begin with. And as automation spreads through the entire economic system, no profession will be safe.[xix]

But this type of analysis assumes a straight line trend projection, but as there are many uncertainties with respect to the growth of artificial intelligence and our response, we need to explore not the future, but alternative futures.


Four possible scenarios are likely.

First: Teach and train for the 1950s. In this future, educators assume youth – high school and university students – will have one job, one career and live in one nation. The story line would be: “teaching for jobs that no longer exist.” Thus, the educational system in this future will be unable to meet the challenges of the major disruptions.  For students and teachers, it will be like living in a prison cell (wasting their time and when they are free, they will be irrelevant). As William Bossert, a Harvard Professor who taught computer sciences in the 1970s, recently commented: “If you’re [xx]afraid that you might be replaced by a computer, then you probably can be-and should be.”

Second: Add a few courses on computers and Asian languages. In this future, through  national broadband networks, the speed of access to information changes, but there is no real change in infrastructure. Academic hierarchy continues. Classrooms remain ordered in rows. Knowledge is about repeating information. The story line would be: “too little, too late”. For students, they will face a disconnect between virtual world/peer-to-peer networks and the formal industrial educational system. They will be physically in class but mentally far away.

Third: teach and train for emerging industries. In this future, high schools and universities, indeed, the entire educational system, teaches for the current emerging futures. Curriculum will likely be focused on the following areas:

  •  robotics
  •  bio-informatics
  •  peer to peer
  •  care for ageing
  • meditation and emotional intelligence
  •  software design
  •  city design
  • 3d printing
  •  the internet of everything
  • solar and wind energy, including smart houses and cities


The tag line for this future is: “high-tech, high touch.” Students find their needs meet, they are excited about education and blend easily between formal high school and university and their own virtual peer to peer learning frameworks. The value added is not problem solving as computers can do that with ease, but with defining the problem and with being alert to how the nature of the problem keeps on shifting, that is, we are embedded in complex adaptive systems that change as we intervene in the system, as we solve the problem.

The fourth future is more radical and is titled: teach and train for a world after jobs.

This future takes the forecast by the Foundation for Young Australians seriously concluding that the  emerging efficiency, collaborative and sharing economy will likely dominate by 2030. Robotics, the internet of everything and major disruptions will make education no longer about jobs but about purpose, adaptability and meaning. The passing on between generations will not be data based but about the sharing of emotional, spiritual and new forms of intelligence. Says Meg Bear, Vice-president of Oracle, “Empathy is the critical 21st-century skill.”[xxi] Indeed, the main issue will be: “how well do you get along with your robot.” [xxii]As AI is best suited for standardized work, performance is not about being like a “lean machine,” but as “good at being a person. Great performance requires as to be intensely human beings,” argues Geoff Colvin in his new book, Human are Underrated. Value comes from the ability “to build relationships, brainstorm, collaborate, and lead.” [xxiii]

Safety and security emerge from a basic universal income[xxiv] – this ensures that survival is taken care of so that individuals can focus on thrival.

It would be a post-scarcity world, where current – 2015 – way of acting and being would be disadvantageous. The tag line for this scenario is: “strangers in a strange land.

Students will find this world both exciting and threatening. Exciting as it opens up many possibilities but threatening in that they will need to adjust to and create new forms of physical and knowledge infrastructure. They future will be truly unknown.

Education would have been disrupted in this scenario. The castle would have been breached. The knights – the professors – could go back to what they truly love – reflecting, learning, teaching, and the creation of new knowledge.

Would it become an ecological playground? Perhaps. But once the moat goes down, it is unclear what will emerge afterwards. Perhaps the villagers outside the castle walls may storm inside, or perhaps they will welcome the new global brain.

We shall see. In the meantime, believing that tomorrow will be likely today is a precursor to obsolescence.




[i] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-24/next-generation-chasing-dying-careers/6720528 – foundation for young australians. Accessed 1 September 2015. For the full report, see: https://www.fya.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/fya-future-of-work-report-final-lr.pdf. Accessed 3 October 2015.

[ii] Well, H.G, (1938) The World Brain. New York: Doubleday.

[iii] https://www.chinability.com/Reserves.htm. Accessed 3 October 2015.

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2014/mar/10/for-sale-spanish-village-free-right-owner. Accessed 3 October 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/08/23/433228503/in-spain-entire-villages-are-up-for-sale-and-theyre-going-cheap. Accessed 3 October 2015.

[v] For more on this, see: Inayatullah, S. (2012). “University futures: Wikipedia University, Core-periphery reversed, Incremental Managerialism or Bliss for all,” On the Horizon, (Vol. 20, No. 1), 84–91.

[vi] For more on the higher education demand, see: https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/the_shape_of_things_to_come_-_higher_education_global_trends_and_emerging_opportunities_to_2020.pdf. Accessed 3 October 2015.

[vii] Whyte, S. (2011), ‘‘Aging academics set university time bomb’’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16

January, available at: www.smh.com.au/national/ageing-academics-set-university-timebomb-

20110115-19ry1.html. Accessed 24 January 2011.

[viii] Luyt, B., Zainal, C.Z.B.C., Mayo, O.V.P. and Yun, T.S. (2008), ‘‘Young people’s perceptions and usage of

Wikipedia’’, Information Research, Vol. 13 No. 4, December, available at: https://informationr.net/ir/13-4/

paper377.html. Accessed 6 October 2011.

[ix] Kelly, P. (2011), personal communication, 25 January.

[x] https://www.ey.com/AU/en/Industries/Government—Public-Sector/UOF_University-of-the-future. Accessed 6 October 2015.

[xi] https://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120216105739999. Accessed 6 October 2015.

[xii] https://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120216105739999. Accessed 6 October 2015.

[xiii] https://www.edarabia.com/15179/. Accessed 6 October 2015.

[xiv] https://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/marketplacek12/2013/02/size_of_global_e-learning_market_44_trillion_analysis_says.html. Accessed 6 October 2015.

[xv] https://www.forbes.com/pictures/eeji45emgkh/airbnb-snapgoods-and-12-more-pioneers-of-the-share-economy/. Accessed 10 October 2015. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21573104-internet-everything-hire-rise-sharing-economy. Accessed 10 October 2015.

[xvi] https://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/04/business/digital-native-prensky/. Accessed 10 October 2015.

[xvii] https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/05/21/408234543/will-your-job-be-done-by-a-machine?utm_content=bufferdf8ca&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.Accessed 31 January 2016.

[xviii] https://phys.org/news/2016-02-intelligent-robots-threaten-millions-jobs.html. 15 February 2016.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Geoff Colvin, “Human are Underrated,” Fortune.com, (No. 10), 1 August 2015, 45.

[xxi] quoted in Geoff Colvin, “Human are Underrated,” Fortune.com (No. 10), 1 August 2015, 45.

[xxii] Anne Fisher, “Could you be replaced by a thinking machine?” https://fortune.com/2015/11/01/artificial-intelligence-robots-work/. Accessed 2 November 2015.

[xxiii] Geoff Colvin, “Human are Underrated,” Fortune.com, (No. 10), 1 August 2015, 46.

[xxiv] https://www.basicincome.org/. Accessed 15 February 2016.