“There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril.” So said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), at the 2016 WEF in Davos.
Schwab was referring to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the subject of his eponymous book and a hot topic for the policymakers, business leaders and academics who attended WEF in January 2016. Talk centred on the global impact of a digital revolution driven by advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, genetics and biotechnology.
Mobile devices have given rise to a knowledge economy, where people can instantly access information using their smartphones or tablets. New technology has also led to increased staff mobility and a shift from the traditional workplace to new operations such as smart factories, where products ‘talk’ to each other at every stage of the production process.
Schwab believes the next revolution – following three eras of innovation that saw steam, electricity and automated production respectively change the world – has the potential to improve people’s lives.
“We live in a time of great promise and great peril. The world has the potential to connect billions more people to digital networks, dramatically improve the efficiency of organisations and even manage assets in ways that can help regenerate the natural environment, potentially undoing the damage of previous industrial revolutions,” he said.
The revolution brings challenges, too. Automated machinery is making certain jobs redundant, forcing people to develop new skills and find different trades. “How will the warehouse worker who used to ship your order, or the salesman who used to take it, now make a living when he or she is no longer needed in that venture?,” said US Vice-President Joe Biden.
While eradicating some industries, the revolution is also creating new ones. ‘Future of Jobs Report’ by WEF states that today’s most in-demand occupations did not exist 10, or even five years ago. It reports: “By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.”
The future of work was the key topic for Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business School (LBS), who spoke on the panel ‘What if everyone lived to 2100?’ at WEF.
"What's clear is the major restructuring of life that we think is going to happen with regards to longevity – corporations are not prepared for this,” she said. “Governments are not prepared for this. It will rest with the individual both working on their own and collectively who will be the agents of change. We are certainly monitoring some amazing experiments occurring over the next decade as people come to terms with what it really means to live 100 years."
In their book The 100-Year Life, Professor Gratton and Andrew Scott, Professor of Economics at LBS, talk about how people’s lives and careers will change. While working until the age of 80 is to become the norm, future generations will have greater access to more information and better healthcare. The notions of work, work-life balance, leisure and retirement, will be redrawn.
Another big issue is how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will give men and women access to the same opportunities, albeit next century. According to the authors of the ‘Global Gender Gap Report 2015’, it will take until the year 2133 to close the global pay gap.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook called for equality to start at home. “We have a toddler pay gap,” she said, referring to how boys tend to get a higher allowance for doing fewer chores at home. If the world is to move towards parity, men and women need a level playing field.
The revolution also brings technology with the potential to lift people out of poverty. The developing world is leapfrogging desktop computers and going straight to mobile.
“For many people, the smartphone is the first and only computer they have,” said Inga Beale, CEO of Lloyd’s.
According to a Pew Research Center report, ‘Spring 2014 Global Attitudes’, mobile phones are as common in Nigeria and South Africa as they are in the US, with 90% of adults owning a mobile phone. This gives them access to information and an opportunity to better themselves through knowledge.
As the debate in Davos showed, the way people live and work is changing. But the global impact of this revolution remains unclear – for now.