The reality of an increasingly digital world is shaping the future of our youth and our country, whether we’re ready for it or not, notes Byron Clatterbuck, CEO, SEACOM.

There is no doubt that the future of work will look different; so much so that the World Economic Forum predicts that robots will displace 85 million jobs by 2025; but the good news is that they will also create 97 million new roles. Alleviating fears that “robots and machines will take our jobs” needs to become a priority if we plan to build a resilient, responsive skills base.

The future is already here

We have become so concerned about the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what it means to us that we haven’t even noticed that robots, machines, and technology already play a significant role in our lives.

For years we have been giving our unpleasant, less desirable work to machines without complaining about it. Consider your vacuum cleaner. Before you started using it, you had a broom. Vacuum cleaners then became available and made cleaning a whole lot easier. This has been taken a step further, and we now have robot vacuum cleaners that move around the home unassisted, cleaning as they go. We are already living the robotic future that we so fear, we just haven’t considered it in this light before.

If we are so easily persuaded to use a vacuum or GPS because of how much easier they make our lives, then why are we so scared of a future that embraces what we are already experiencing?

What does this mean for the future of work?

New jobs have been and will continue to be created to facilitate the digital migration and to continue to provide goods and services more efficiently, and in many cases, more safely.  Enhanced security systems have made office spaces and business parks safer through the use of access tags, cards, and even biometrics.

However, they have also made the need for security at entrances redundant. While this role may disappear in the future, it also creates the opportunity for someone to design, implement, and maintain these security systems. We simply need to start looking at the bigger picture.

The world has taken on a hybrid model, where humans and robots or AI work together, ensuring a more streamlined and efficient workflow while humans take on the more empathetic and strategic side of things. Technology is more efficient and process driven, getting things done quicker and with fewer errors, which is essential for business processes. However, people still crave human interaction and emotion and, no matter how hard we try, no technology will be able to replace that.

Humans will continue to take on the empathetic, more creative side of things. Now we should focus on innovations to facilitate and benefit from the digital migration.

Upskilling the digital population

Recent events have shown us that the way we work can change quite easily – more easily than many would have expected. This rapid change has created a sense of uncertainty among some South Africans, particularly the youth. This shouldn’t be the case, as the evolution brought on by AI and technology can work to their advantage and provide opportunities that they never thought were possible.

Having said this, we cannot expect South Africa to take on the digital world if we don’t have the skills and infrastructure to do so. If we don’t have proper roads, this makes laying Internet fibre more difficult, and without proper Internet access, we cannot participate in the digital economy.

This creates an inequality gap in terms of skills development and access to technology. Urban areas will be able to join the digital migration with ease, while rural communities risk being left behind as they lack the relevant knowledge, skills, and infrastructure. The longer this gap exists, the bigger it will become.

Education is essential in upskilling the population and bridging this gap; this is where there is potential for the government to step in and provide these opportunities.

Public-private partnerships facilitating growth of digital ecosystem

Government has the ideal platform to promote digital education and facilitate skills development, but they need better infrastructure and capacity to enable this. This is where businesses can assist in building and developing the infrastructure and skills needed to drive digital development.

By joining forces, business and government can bridge the gap and ensure a brighter future for South Africa’s youth in a digitally driven world. At the end of the day, the world is moving forward, and it’s up to us to make sure that we’re able to keep up.

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