Interview: What is the future of work?

According to Professor Irmgard Nübler, the future of work is being shaped to a large extent by new technologies and this represents a global challenge.


Irmgard Nübler talks about the future of work with new technologies. (Picture: DEKRA)

What does Industry 4.0 mean?
Most importantly it is about automating the interaction between different procedures and integrating and improving production processes. Many economists regard these developments as a fourth industrial revolution, while others believe they are the continuation of digitization, which has been happening for some time. The question that has not yet been answered is how the new developments will affect the world of work. Opinions on this subject differ widely. We can be certain that a lot of jobs in industry, particularly in the middle layers, will disappear and new jobs will be created at the top and bottom of the hierarchy.

How do you think this will happen?
None of us can foresee the future; we can only speculate. But we have to assume that much larger numbers of highly skilled employees will be needed: engineers and software developers, for example. In the past, machines primarily replaced workers who performed routine tasks. Now machines can learn and this means that they can carry out more difficult jobs. The role of architects and doctors, for example, will also undergo major changes. In the same way as in industry, tasks will be standardized and taken over by computers. I’m thinking, for instance, of medical diagnostics or the evaluation of documents. This represents a significant challenge for the industrial nations. The role of managers will also change fundamentally. When machines have learning algorithms and can take routine decisions, managers will have to decide on future questions, clearly define their objectives, and determine what level of risk they are prepared to take. This will increase the pressure of responsibility on them even more.

The stress of day-to-day work is already significant. Will people be able to take even more pressure? Stress-related mental illnesses are the most common type of occupational illness.
We need to protect employees not only from physical injuries, but also from phenomena like burn-out that have become more prevalent in the digital world of work. We can’t prevent technological developments from happening, but we need to draw up new rules for the new game. Digitization will lead to many existing risks disappearing, because hazardous, unpleasant, and monotonous tasks can be performed by robots. In addition, other forms of work will develop. So we need laws and institutions which will ensure that we provide decent, acceptable workplaces and working conditions. It will also be important for us to monitor compliance with working standards. This is all about creating a working world that we as a society want, where we want to live. Politicians must play a guiding role in this respect. The dialogue between the state, management, unions, employees, and also civil society is a decisive instrument for ensuring that the interests of business and those of society as a whole are taken into consideration.

Do I hear a note of criticism?
Any organization that wants to survive in the face of global competition must increase its productivity and efficiency. This is the goal that has driven the process of automation in the industrial countries. But when many jobs are taken over by machines, this will lead to unemployment. Digitization has resulted in an increasingly polarized situation on the labor
market. The proportions of low earners and very well-paid employees are growing, while the jobs for people with an average level of qualifications are disappearing. Middle America in particular is shrinking rapidly. But we need a strong middle class because of its buying power. The current challenge for every country is to define its development goals and to find a balance between productivity, employment, and good jobs.

What do you think is the greatest challenge of digitalization?
Our research is focusing heavily on the ongoing development of technologies in industrial production. But we also need to look in detail at other issues and develop technological solutions to meet global challenges. The world will soon have a population of ten billion and supplying people with clean drinking water is already a problem. In the medical world, increasing resistance to antibiotics is causing major concern. We also need to take new and innovative approaches in our research into energy generation and develop completely new technologies to make progress in this area. Individual countries will not be able to solve these complex problems on their own. Instead global cooperation is needed.

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