Shorter hours, happier lives?

Apr 29 2021

Industry 4.0. Shorthand for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it refers to the ongoing automation of industrial practices using modern smart technology. We’re already undergoing this transformation – or rather, digitization – in the way we produce products. 

If the First Industrial Revolution was brought about through steam power, the Second through electricity and mechanized production lines, the Third through computers, the Fourth is being catalyzed by machine learning and the increasing affordability of robotics. Computers have largely relied on interaction with humans, but now and in the future, more and more, AI will do things for itself. 

The question is: how can we make these changes work for us, ensuring that our relationship with the workplace and our quality of life outside of it actually improves – and in a way that is equitable for everyone?   

Reframing the narrative We hear a lot about how Industry 4.0 is bad for us – alarming notions of AI taking over and rendering humans obsolete. As the American businessman, politician, political commentator, philanthropist, and author Andrew Yang puts it: “Automation is no longer just a problem for those working in manufacturing. Physical labor was replaced by robots; mental labor is going to be replaced by AI and software.” 

According to pre-pandemic forecasts by the McKinsey Global Institute, Automation is expected to eliminate 73 million jobs in the U.S. alone by 2030. 

While the fact that AI will replace many existing jobs across blue collar and white collar industries stands true, XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling Advisory board member Jeff Wald argues that this might not happen as soon as we think. He takes trucking as an example industry, pointing out that we’re a long way from safe driverless vehicles, let alone seeing them approved, affordable enough to come to market, and widely taken up as a replacement for the trucks we have now. 

He also points out that after the industrial revolutions of the past, we have always eventually ended up with more jobs, a higher standard of living, and people working fewer hours. The data shows that in many countries, the hours worked on average per week per person have been in steady decline over the last 150 years, so perhaps there is potential to see Industry 4.0 as an opportunity to improve systems that are currently not working for us, he explains. 

Think about it: a lot about the current labor market is not exactly perfect. Despite employment rates in the US improving post-COVID-19, millions are still out of work, with 6% of Americans unemployed compared to around 4% before the pandemic. For others, the pandemic has thrown the work-life balance right out of whack: “The average length of time an employee working from home in the UK, Austria, Canada and the US is logged on at their computer has increased by more than two hours a day since the coronavirus crisis,” reports The Guardian. 

Even before COVID, zero hours contracts were leaving many without job security let alone benefits, particularly in low paid jobs. The pandemic has made us value key workers more than ever before, argues Sarah Jaffe, author of “Work Won’t Love You Back” so why are they still some of the most overworked and undervalued people in our society?

Many experts argue that the system needs an overhaul – that if we can future proof for Industry 4.0, we could design a future of work that looks a lot better than the one we have now. Here are four key areas where digitization could benefit us… 

Turning digitization into a positive 

AI can maximize efficiency, and reduce waste: To begin with, Industry 4.0 could be positive for the environment, some argue. If we program machines to reduce the production of defective goods, and optimize manufacturing processes in real-time. Here’s one example: Orbem, one of the finalists in our $5M IBM Watson AI XPRIZE, use machine learning combined with imaging technology to allow chicken hatcheries to analyze eggs by sex and therefore reduce the 9 billion eggs are wasted in fertilization within today’s poultry industry. If it’s good for the planet, it’s good for us. 

Less dangerous jobs. AI has the potential to replace some of the jobs that are currently putting humans at risk – from welding to heavy lifting. Machine learning could also make the jobs we continue to do safer. The U.S. Navy already has a firefighting robot that extinguishes flames on ships, while robots are being used to clean up Fukushima. In the future, we will increasingly rely on robots, and particularly avatars, to enter disaster situations on our behalf, offering healthcare and disaster relief remotely. As automation has done for hundreds of years, robots will also continue to replace more dull and repetitive jobs, from cleaning floors to restocking shelves. 

An upskilling revolution: So, the job market is changing, but we don’t necessarily need to be out of jobs. We should be able to find new ones – and they might just be more stimulating. The World Economic Forum estimates that “about two-thirds of the jobs transformed by automation will become higher-skilled, while the other third will be lower-skilled” – much of that looks like managing AI and robots. As Wald puts it: “When you think about that utopian future, and more of those mundane tasks being done by a robot by an AI system, it frees us up, whether it frees us up to do higher value-added tasks at work or higher value-added tasks in our lives.” 

Shorter hours, happier lives? If we plan for these coming changes, we might ultimately find ourselves working less, with more leisure time, as we have after previous industrial revolutions. Research shows that shorter hours can mean happier lives. In the UK, half of all sick absences are due to work-related stress, anxiety or depression, with workload the number one reason given. The pandemic has seen mental distress at work rise by 49% when compared to the 2017/2019 period. In the US, meanwhile, the unhealthy side effects of working long hours are well documented. The American Heart Association found that people under 50 had a higher risk of stroke when working over 10 hours a day for over a decade. Another study, across 14 countries, found that people who worked long hours were more likely to become excessive drinkers. Working fewer hours is therefore good for both our mental and physical health. 


Paving the way for tomorrow 

To ensure everyone benefits from Industry 4.0 we need to keep human equity at the forefront of the conversation. Automation related to AI stands to disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities, while low wage workers and under-resourced communities in the U.S. continue to face systemic barriers to learning, mobility, and progress. XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling is our vision to change this situation: a $5 million dollar, 30-month competition that can quickly reskill under-resourced workers for the digital revolution. Rather than displacing American adults, we believe that technology can be used to close the widening skill gap and to help people find work. The prize will therefore incentivize teams to develop and harness new technologies that can create a more inclusive, human led future of work, and empower labor organizations in the process. 

With an unprecedented digital disruption and adoption caused by COVID-19 comes a new opportunity to radically change the lives of millions of Americans. If we can improve access to technology, provide the skills to use that technology, and therefore ensure that remote working is creating more opportunities not less, the future of work looks a lot more sustainable, healthy and fulfilling for all.