FROM KERALA’S MUNAMBAM harbour in the north of Vypeen, a fishing island near Kochi, several families from Delhi’s poor neighbourhood of Madangir are believed to have embarked on a treacherous boat trip that covers some of the most turbulent sea routes in the world: to New Zealand, in search of jobs. Driven into extreme poverty as the country lost 11 million jobs last year, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), these undocumented emigrants— families with pregnant women and children—preferred to take the formidable risk of a rough journey on the high seas rather than continue to live in Delhi’s hellish conditions. So report family members who couldn’t leave with them due to paucity of space on the boat. Of course, this was an example of a worst-case scenario, one that was inevitably highlighted by the media, especially after leaked official statistics indicated the country’s unemployment rate hit a 45-year high last year.
As the political slugfest continues over the leaked document—the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) periodic labour force survey (PLFS) which said India’s joblessness rate hit 6.1 per cent in 2017—the Government maintains it was a ‘draft’ report, not a ‘final’ one. The leak came shortly after the resignation of two members of the National Statistical Commission protesting against the Centre having withheld the report, apparently in fear of a backlash ahead of the General Election due by May. The Narendra Modi-led BJP had come to power in 2014 promising the creation of millions of jobs.
Beyond the rhetoric that is a pastime of our politicians, there is a growing realisation, globally and locally, that with corporations across the world in such a hurry to use technology to multiply profits like never before, ‘quality jobs’—those comfortable roles in which an employee can be assured of being on the payroll for life with all the accompanying perks of health insurance, retirement benefits and so on—are shrinking rapidly. Automation and the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in low-risk jobs (for now) have begun to change the name of the game called employment.
By its very nature, capitalism is all about a single-minded pursuit of profit. Companies these days prefer short-term contractual obligations and the minimum use of manpower since these are widely perceived as steps to maximise returns on investment. What happens to the workforce that was for long the pillar of strength for an employer is hardly a concern for the management so long as earnings are robust, with machines doing what men and women once did. This is where economists agree that Karl Marx was right about capitalism. It is the State and workers themselves who will have to worry about re-skilling and adapting to a new highly competitive job market that is changing at breakneck speed. In the future, it has been said, even for the highly experienced every job would be as precarious as his first job as a trainee.
This is why the Central Government—or successive governments for that matter—argues that official job numbers do not fully capture employment generated by technological advances. For instance, one would never get to know the number of young people who work as food delivery boys for companies such as Zomato and Swiggy; drivers of app-based cab services such as Ola and Uber; and various other online start-ups. Employment figures from official agencies are designed to capture the job situation from a narrower sample of work categories. Even so, it is clear that the age of ‘quality jobs’ is long gone in a majority of functions. Union Minister Piyush Goyal said in an interview to PTI, “We have been engaging with industry to understand the disconnect between the available data and the real situation. Therefore, to get an accurate picture, we were having an engagement with business and industry, both traditional and new age.”
Goyal also said the country needs to place greater emphasis on sectors like tourism, healthcare and transport that have the potential to create greater job opportunities. The Centre also relies on the payroll data of the Employee Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO), which shows that employment generation in the formal sector increased by 48 per cent to touch a 15-month high of 732,000 in November 2018 compared with 493,000 in the year-ago month.
Despite such proclamations, an academic of the stature of Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of India, lashed out at the Government in a recent New York Times column: ‘India has a job crisis, and the government would rather you didn’t notice.’ He adds: ‘India’s growth rate remains robust, but the benefits of the country’s growth have been concentrated almost entirely at the top, with grim implications for the working classes and the lower-middle classes, women and the young.
These effects aren’t just the accidental results of the government’s decision, say, to ban certain currency bills in late 2016 (which proved to be terribly misguided) or to transform the indirect tax system into the new Goods and Services Tax (a move in the right direction but that was poorly executed and hurt small businesses).’
TRUE, A THIN stratum of highly skilled professionals will occupy the best paying jobs as usual, as survey after survey reveals. The American futurologist Stowe Boyd said years ago that as companies re-align functions, freelance work done by specialists will rise vastly over the next few decades. As he envisions it, freelancers will be able to work with a wide range of companies. All this, he posits, permits such top-notch talent to commute less and avoid office politics—and be more productive and creative. On the other hand, the British economist Guy Standing has predicted the emergence of a ‘precariat’, a growing new social class of people in low-wage, temporary jobs and with no political voice.
Standing, no doubt, took note of the changes in the American economy over the second half of the 20th century. For instance, in 1964, the four largest US companies employed about 430,000 people each. But by 2011, they had only a quarter that number on their rolls, despite having grown twice their size. An example often quoted is that of Kodak, the camera and film giant. In the late 1980s, the company had 145,000 people on its payroll. In 2012, it filed for bankruptcy. The same year, Instagram, a photo-sharing social media platform which had only 13 employees at the time, was bought by Facebook for $1 billion.
The Indian Government has argued the previous employment surveys and the PLFS, a two-year pilot study started in July 2017, cannot be compared. Yet India grapples with a new problem that has global dimensions: of job uncertainty. S Ramadorai, former vice-chairman of Tata Consultancy Services and former chief of National Skill Development Agency and National Skill Development Corp, is of the view that half of all jobs are at the risk of being replaced by AI and automation.
According to him, the new roles will require a high degree of cognitive skills. Other job forecasters say India should encourage its young people to unleash the power of their creativity to generate more enduring jobs as well as concomitant employment opportunities that new-technology companies in the online space have created.
“Cumbersome rules that continue to make life difficult for start-ups to go full swing have to be removed and the Government needs to bring in policies to ramp up manufacturing at a time when this sector in China may show signs of a slowdown. Some initiatives have been taken, but political expediency has hampered them. Now it may be late, but things have to be done on a war footing to meet India’s job requirements,” says a senior Government official who has examined global trends over a long time.
According to surveys, jobs that will endure the storm of automation and AI include those of specialised nurses, vets, shrinks and so on. Some others will see a lot of demand: expert freelancers of all types, data scientists, AI specialists, Uber-type taxi drivers and food delivery boys, among them.
Entrepreneur, jackfruit evangelist and former Microsoft India director James Joseph had once said in an interview to Open that data science, machine learning and deep learning will be hot jobs with more and more companies exploring their data to find actionable business intelligence. Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, has argued the world will one day be controlled by a microscopic minority of powerful superhumans who would monopolise wealth and political power.
But some others refute such predictions. Harry M Jansen Kraemer Jr, a professor of strategy at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says while 20-50 per cent of current jobs may be replaced by new technologies, new jobs will surface to accommodate most people. He believes the major growth areas will be AI, healthcare, food and water, space science, and leisure.
In an earlier interview to Open, AI evangelist Beena Ammanath of ‘Humans for AI’ had said new jobs will include those that retrain people across functions to make them AI- savvy. The goals of Humans for AI also include leveraging “AI to release a set of free products built by this community to further our mission of bringing diversity to AI”, in Ammanath’s words, and to “demystify AI by providing a basic understanding of the concepts, thinking and events in AI for novices and non-technical people interested in how AI will impact their lives and their jobs”. Ammanath has played a key role in shaping innovations and strategy at Bank of America, GE, Thomson Reuters, E-Trade, British Telecom and several Silicon Valley start-ups.
The world is clearly headed towards technological disruption on an unprecedented scale. For his part, Adarsh Natarajan, founder and CEO of AIndra Systems, an AI healthcare company, says he often avoids dwelling on which jobs will be turned relevant and which irrelevant by AI “because it is a sensitive subject”. When prodded, he comes up with some insightful observations. According to him, this time around, unlike previous ‘revolutions’ (agricultural, industrial and digital), AI will not only disrupt medial or entry-point jobs that are repetitive by nature, but also those that require high skill-sets. “We are entering an era where no such barriers would exist,” he notes.
Natarajan says any function that banks on pattern recognition will face the risk of extinction. This includes the job of clinicians—cardiologists, radiologists and so on—in the case of healthcare. “Machines will be able to recognise patterns that finally diagnose an ailment much better than humans,” he says, adding that the trend will be seen across industrial segments. He is of the view that, contrary to popular perception, jobs that require great levels of artistic creativity will not be immune to the onslaught of AI.
For instance, he points out, IBM’s Watson supercomputer tied up with 20th Century Fox three years ago to create a film trailer using AI. Scientists had to feed Watson with a series of horror movie trailers for it to create a movie trailer on its own.
THEREFORE, NATARAJAN FORESEES an upheaval across job categories unsettling the current generation of employees. But he is hopeful the next lot of jobseekers will be able to cope with the pace of transformation. “This time around, changes are taking place at very high speed, not giving people enough time to adapt,” he says, adding “we as a human race will be able to come up with a higher order of jobs, especially those that involve next-frontier technologies like gene editing.” It is expected that regenerative medicine, nanotechnology and space science will grow further, as will celebrity public relations, cyber security, hi-tech cars, customised air travel and so on.
Of course, there is poverty amid plenty. Chaos will prevail in the job market as companies and governments adopt technologies rapidly to stay ahead of the competition.
In Denmark, to soften the sweeping changes technologies are expected to create in the labour market, the federal government in 2017 set up a Disruption Council, headed by its prime minister and comprising ministers and CEOs. Upskilling workers is one of the top priorities of this Council, besides putting in place a mechanism to provide unemployment benefits. ‘Turning pain into gain’ is a slogan heard often in competitive Western economies. Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s bestselling 2017 book Utopia For Realists addresses the issue of man’s race against machine, and suggests a solution: ‘Redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter working week), of taxation (on capital instead of labour), and, of course, of robots.’
But implementing similar measures in a country as populous and diverse as India would be a Herculean task. India is in a particularly difficult patch at the moment. At the bottom of the pyramid, Indians are losing jobs to frequent disruptions in the informal economy. Those higher up are losing them to AI and technology. Those in the ‘gig economy’—freelancers, entrepreneurs and creative geniuses—confront bureaucratic inefficiencies and taxation burdens at every step. Add to that rural distress and incessant migration to unforgiving cities, and you look at a bleak future. The first step has to be to snap out of denial mode.