As people filed into their offices for the first time in 2017 this week, many might be forgiven for feeling less than optimistic about the new year.
The economy is expected to slow down in the months ahead, while the threat of technological disruption looms ever more closely than before, even if you are in a “safe” industry like the legal, healthcare or accounting sectors.
As business processes become digital, or “Uberised”, old ways of doing things will come up for review. Not all will change in this so-called third industrial revolution, but many will.
You’d think that lawyers are protected by the need to be called to the bar, but now online legal services, at least in the United States, are beginning to offer some of the basic advice that lawyers used to charge by the hour in the past.
In future, could straightforward conveyancing, say, when you buy a new house, be done more cheaply online, since lawyers use the same templates anyway?
Doctors could face unprecedented change as well. New telemedicine services now enable patients to see a general practitioner all hours of a day remotely, without waiting for the next morning to head to the neighbourhood doctor.
And we haven’t started on robots or artificial intelligence (AI). They are already taking over white-collar jobs that people used to believe were safe from the automation wave in the 1980s that killed so many manufacturing jobs.
In Japan, a system based on IBM’s Watson Explorer just helped an insurance firm replace 34 employees who used to calculate the payouts to policyholders.
Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance believes it will boost productivity by 30 per cent and recoup its investment within two years, reported The Guardian.
It is no wonder there is a mood of “nativist nationalism” in developed countries during these difficult times, as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his New Year message.
The profound angst and discontent with technology and globalisation are tempting people to shut themselves off, to insulate from foreign competition, he noted.
Yet, there is also opportunity. Lawyers and doctors may not have to fear as much as many others, since they cannot simply be replaced by robots, at least for now.
Still, there is a drive towards more specialisation. Lawyers, for example, are now advised to learn more about a trade, say, shipping or copyright, to better advise clients.
Doctors are asked to adopt technology beyond grudgingly moving from handwritten notes to electronic records in recent years, to use analysis tools at their disposal to better understand a patient’s ailment.
Those who don’t adapt will find themselves increasingly on the margins, more easily replaced by automation or a technology disruption.
If those in a “safe” profession are not safe, what more those who have to face disruption without any strong barriers to entry?
One way is to keep retraining and finding new, associated skills to survive. Learning coding alone would save you from retrenchment, it’s true, but it could offer a buffer, an additional skill set to place on a resume when the economy rebounds.
Right, that’s easy to say. Asking someone who has spent his entire life specialised in an industry to go become an expert in something else altogether sounds like the talk of a privileged 1-per cent corporate or political leader.
However, there’s a good chunk of truth in it. Besides hard skills, you’ll need people skills as well – in negotiations, a human can do better than a robot, or another less well-prepared human.
As I write this, I’m aware how writers like myself can be easily replaced. Already, straightforward news reports on companies’ financial results or sports events are being written by machines.
No surprises there. That follows the narrative that “simple” jobs will be taken over by robots, leaving humans to find tougher, possibly “more meaningful” tasks.
At least for a while, some of these still require a human. A novel that was widely reported to be written by AI in Japan earlier last year was subsequently revealed to be done with the help of human writers, who put in 80 per cent of the effort.
Still, there is no denying the inevitable. Digital disruption will create a new digital divide.
If the Internet in the 1990s drew a sharp line between the digital haves and have-nots, a new line will now separate those whose livelihoods are disrupted and those doing the disrupting and winning.
2017 may not be the year when everything turned upside down for many turning up for work this week, hung over from two long weekends of reverie.
Yet, when the dust settles after the latest bout of economic malaise, some of the jobs lost in the cyclical downturn may not return. Once disrupted, many industries will not be the same again.