A Digital Future That Works for Everyone

Think how much the average workplace has changed in the last two decades. The fax machine has gone. A lot less gets printed. Workers use apps to navigate to and from the workplace, and to turn their heating on before they arrive home.

That pace of change is only getting faster, which is why at Google we believe we need to start thinking about the future of work right now.

Our grandchildren will have jobs that don’t yet exist, and we cannot imagine what their everyday lives will look like. In Europe, getting the future of work right for individuals, societies and industries will require a careful mix of policy decisions: we want to be a part of that discussion. Earlier this month we brought together a range of leading international experts from academia, trade unions, public sector and businesses in Stockholm and The Hague to discuss the impact of technology on jobs.

“Incumbents resist change. This is not new and in fact we have seen it throughout every stage of history,” Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, said in The Hague. “But if history has taught us anything, it is that when disruptors and pioneers are right, society always recalibrates.”

What could this recalibration look like? There’s a heated debate about whether innovations like machine learning are a magic fix for an aging workforce, or a fast track to mass unemployment. We therefore asked McKinsey for a report on the impact of automation on work, jobs and skills. They focused their research on the Nordics, Benelux, Ireland and Estonia — a diverse group which have at least one thing in common: they’re Europe’s digital frontrunners. The report shows us that while automation will impact existing jobs, innovation and adopting new technologies can increase the total number of jobs available.

“Since the Industrial Revolution, machines have been the ideal colleague, performing some of the most mind-numbing tasks and freeing up human partners to do more interesting and productive things,” McKinsey wrote in the report. “However, in the near future, new digital technologies are set to take the next step, graduating from the factory floor to the boardroom and applying themselves to more complex, cognitive activities.”

As this becomes reality, divergent paths are possible. It won’t mean mass unemployment: across Europe, only 23% of employees are in occupations that are more than 70% automatable (we’ll need new words, as well as new jobs, in the future). But it does mean mass adaptation. Around 44% of working hours have the potential to be automated, so the future could potentially mean working fewer hours in new roles.

Therefore, to make a success of the digital transition, countries should promote adoption of new technologies and double down on skills training and education. We want to play our part here. One example of how we contribute is our program Digitalakademin in Sweden: So far, we’ve trained more than 20,000 people in small- and medium-sized business in digital skills. And together with the Swedish National Employment Agency we’ve developed training to help unemployed people get the skills necessary for the jobs of the future.

As Erik Sandström from Sweden’s National Employment Agency stressed at our event in Stockholm, it “all starts with digital competence — if you’re lacking in digital competence you will overestimate the risks and underestimate the opportunities.” That sentiment was echoed in a keynote by Ylva Johansson, the Swedish Minister for Employment and Integration: “Why do we have an attitude where unions, employees are positively accepting ongoing changes? Because we’ve been able to protect people and to present new opportunities through reskilling.”

It also means adjustments to the way countries deal with education, the ageing population and social security. “In Denmark, we discussed the destruction of jobs,” Thomas Søby from the Danish Steelworkers Union said. “New ones are created,” he added. “But some people will lose their jobs and feel left behind, and as a society we need to take care of those people.”

We at Google are inspired by countries such as Sweden and Denmark. These digital leaders have systems that encourage innovation and robust social models that help workers make the transition to new jobs as the world evolves. At our event in The Hague, Aart-Jan de Geus of Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German private foundation which looks at managing future challenges, summed up the dilemma. “The big mistake would be to try to protect jobs; we need to protect workers.”

Dutch recruitment company Randstad, which was founded in 1960 to find staff for the insurance industry, banks and the health-care sector, joined us at the event. Those industries have changed immeasurably over the last six decades: Randstad’s CEO, Jacques van den Broek said that it’s a question of adapting as early as possible. “The digital transformation is an opportunity, not a threat,” he said. “The lesson we’ve learned is that whilst some jobs disappear, tech creates jobs. The longer you wait to embrace that change, the longer it takes to be able to compete.”

We’ve already started, and have trained over 3 million Europeans in digital skills through tailored programs delivered with national partners. In Belgium, for example, Digitaal Atelier provided free practical training to small and medium-sized companies to further grow their businesses. The European Commission recognised our contribution with the EU Digital Skills Award. Many of those who spent time on the training are seeing real impact and starting and growing their own online businesses.

Companies, governments and civil society need to think upfront about how to prepare people for new jobs, skills and technologies. We’re proud of this project and similar achievements across Europe, but we don’t have all the answers. New technology, automation and artificial intelligence are the future of work: it’s essential that we all work together to get it right.

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