Sunday, June 23, 2019

Joe & Jo Pleb

My last blog post, titled Déjà Vu?, described how technological innovations of the last 200 years radically altered the course of history.

To recap: before the industrial age, the majority of human beings worked on the landWithout access to machines, labourers and farm animals alike were fed from harvested crops, thereby depleting outputs and reducing agriculture to a subsistence enterprise. At that time, thplebeian class also included craftsmen, miners, hunters, fishermen, and foot soldiers, who literally had to win the bread that kept their families alive. On their part, women’s childcare and housekeeping chores were deemed as necessary, but insufficient, exertion that fell short of being acknowledged as bona fide work.

Before exploring the future of work, it may be useful to highlight the genesis of the unconscious bias between the respective roles of men (archetype Joe) and women (avatar Jo), based on the long association of work with strength. Since men are physically stronger than women - who, on average, possess about 40% less upper body strength - it was no surprise that men did much of the heavy lifting. And for those who believe that the concept of work is a patriarchal construct, remember that Newtonian physics defines work as the product of force and distance or the “energy required to move an object through the action of a force.

With that in mind, the vast majority of the industrial jobs created in exploration, manufacturing, construction, and other heavy industries were tailor-made for men. On the other hand, women were relegated to less muscular occupations such as healthcare, catering, secretarial and back-office administration. Therefore, in a world of work that rewarded physicality, men had a built-in and, most certainly, unfair advantage.

Effectively tethered to the homestead, women had limited career opportunities until they gained access to birth control methods in the 1960s, and started benefiting en masse from higher education. By then, the domain of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) was already dominated by men. Arguably, even if your average Joe had a natural preference for the S.T.E.M.s, there was no denying the fact that he had a commanding head-start that may have discouraged a not-so-average Jo from pursuing such disciplines. So, while swaggering Joe flaunted his physical prowess and intelligence quotient (IQ), Jo seemed to exhibit better communication skills and higher emotional intelligence quotient (EIQ). 

Modern-day culture warriors might justifiably be aghast at the thought of perpetuating stereotypical differences between the sexes. No doubt, the last half century witnessed unprecedented assimilation of women into formerly male-dominated professions, including the military. Nonetheless, studies conducted in countries where the greatest advances have been made in terms of gender equality showed that women are, by choice, still disinclined to become bricklayers or engineers.

Self-evidently, the tides of history seem to be turning against men in the workplace, stemming from the digital revolution. Starting with the automation of routine jobs traditionally undertaken by blue-collar workers, algorithmic technology is now encroaching on cognitive tasks performed by white-collar professionals. Even the military, another male bastion, is not exempt, as drones and autonomous fighting machines gain traction.

With the rise of the so-called gig economy, an increasing number of jobs now tend to be short-term, no-guarantee contracts. In the US, for example, as many as 3.5 million men work in the road transportation sector, including truckers and Uber drivers. Here's a recurring question: what would happen to all these people when self-driving vehicles go mainstream, since not everyone is a potential software engineer or data scientist? As automation intensifies around the world and wages begin to equalise, the challenge of keeping millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of people gainfully employed and well-remunerated will not recede.  

For now, it is predicted that vocations such as nursing, social care, teaching, and other so-called pink-collar jobs like counselling and event management, which women dominate, are precisely those that may be least susceptible to digitisation.  

So, with a nod to the post-millennial generation - Joe Pleb step aside for Alex Blog, and Jo say ciao to Alexa. Now, does anyone have a clue what the cool jobs of the future will look like?    


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