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Navigating the changing world of work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

To kickstart the South African economy once again, we also need a reframing of skills. Essential skills would include digital literacy, technological proficiency, adaptability, creativity, critical thinking and strong interpersonal abilities.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has long promised, the future of work is coming hurtling at us. On 1 May, we celebrated Workers’ Day in South Africa. As we reflect on 30 years of democracy, it is apparent how far we have come but also apparent that there are hurdles that persist.

While there have been gains, including broader inclusion into the formal economy and the establishment of comprehensive labour law to protect workers, we contend with other challenges.

As Prof Mlungisi Tenza has outlined, “the struggle for better conditions of work, wage increases, and all other issues that affect workers in and outside their workplaces is not yet complete. The declaration of the first of May as International Workers’ Day seems to remind workers in South Africa that regardless of the milestones they have travelled thus far in terms of fighting for and addressing the plight of workers, there is much that needs to be done in the future”.

Although Workers’ Day is internationally recognised, in South Africa it is really a celebration of the role that trade unions and the labour movement have played in protecting workers’ rights. It is an acknowledgement of the workers’ struggle. It has deep roots in the fight against apartheid and the continuing battle against the exploitation of workers.

Now, with the 4IR, there are more complex considerations. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the convergence of environmental, economic, and technological factors will be responsible for both job creation and destruction.

As the world of work evolves, automation and globalisation, alongside these other considerations, require us to honour and protect labour rights. Vast changes to the world of work loom.

As the WEF outlines, over the next five years, there will likely be a structural labour market churn of 23% of jobs, a net decrease of 14 million jobs (2% of current employment), 44% of workers’ skills are expected to be disrupted, and 60% of workers will require training before 2027. Still, only half have access to adequate training opportunities currently.

In South Africa, further complexities arise from our socioeconomic context. Unemployment stands at more than 30%, while GDP continues to falter well below 5%. In other words, joblessness continues to increase as the economy fails to grow as fast as it should.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Economic crisis — SA unemployment rate edges up to 32.1% in Q4 2023

As the economist Duma Gqubule phrased it, these statistics are “the most heart-breaking betrayal of the promises and dreams of our liberation”.

Against this backdrop, it is crucial to continue to advocate for worker’s rights by demanding the enforcement of labour laws, ensuring fair wages and working conditions, and addressing workplace discrimination and exploitation. This should be accompanied by calls for change.

Policies and programmes that promote job creation, skills development, social protection, and inclusive economic growth are essential in this regard. 30 years after the advent of democracy, this is the fight that must continue.

Preserving the human

Tangibly, what does this look like? I would argue that our adaptation to the 4IR needs to be accompanied by societal impact. In other words, as we embrace intelligent technologies, we must remain human-centric in our approach. This entails ensuring that this technology complements our human capacity.

It calls for the application of technology to ameliorate some of our most pressing humanistic challenges. Necessary in this process is an investment in education that equips the youth with the necessary skills, fosters ethical technological development, promotes localised research and development, promotes human and intelligent technology collaboration, addresses disparities, and facilitates responsible technological adoption.

This is how we tap into the potential of the 4IR while prioritising the well-being and empowerment of humans. Policymakers and institutions alike have to ensure that the shift is mindful of the knock-on effect on society. This is how we ensure that our approach emphasises humanity and allows for a more just and equitable world to emerge.

Critical in this process is seeing our growing youth population as a tool for 4IR with societal impact. Our youth have the potential to become active participants and beneficiaries of technological advancements.

To kickstart the South African economy once again, we also need a reframing of skills. Essential skills would include digital literacy, technological proficiency, adaptability, creativity, critical thinking, and strong interpersonal abilities. Emphasising skills in innovation, data analysis, artificial intelligence (AI), and sustainable development can empower the workforce to engage meaningfully in the evolving economic landscape.

Morné Oosthuizen and Haroon Bhorat make the following argument: “The labour market… is arguably the most important factor market with changes in it impacting on the lives of millions of people… it is clear that much remains to be done in order to consolidate economically what has been achieved politically, with the labour market being key”.

Although this conclusion was reached in 2004, 20 years later their words still hold weight. Now, more than ever, we have to consider the impact of our world on the labour market and respond accordingly — this is how we ensure that we have a societal impact. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    What is this 4th industrial revolution?

    We don’t even have clean water. We don’t even have decent roads. We don’t even have decent education.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    2 Academics with blinkers on, on the same day.

    “Unemployment stands at more than 30%, while GDP continues to falter well below 5%.”
    You would want to look again at these again, it is phrased poorly, try below 1% growth, and much more unemployed.

    “Policies and programmes that promote job creation, skills development, social protection, and inclusive economic growth are essential in this regard.”

    All good and well, but completely useless if you do not test for outcomes, or if you exclude 1 race for from access to developmental funding because… race?

    Why does the Gauteng Accelerator Program have a 5-course buffet for lunch, where the excess food also gets carted away? The funds are meant for development, not stomachs.

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