Is employment the next black swan?

A few years ago I read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (not to be confused with the Natalie Portman film of the same name). It's a fascinating book that takes up the idea that we can't learn everything from history or observation. He takes the name of his book from the universally held view in the Western world that swans could only be white in colour, that is, until Europeans came across the first black swan in Australia in the 18th century.

As Taleb explains a black swan is an outlier event or discovery that carries an extreme impact on our experience or way of thinking and which is only explicable after the event. Typical black swans in history have been events such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and 9/11 or the invention of the internal combustion engine.  Conventional wisdom is challenged and eventually becomes obsolete after the black swan.

Only this week, the Foundation for Young Australians published a report where they claimed that nearly 60% of Australian students are currently studying or training for occupations where at least two thirds of the jobs will be automated and that 70% of young Australians are getting their first jobs which will either look very different or disappear altogether in the next 10-15 years! The three factors that will affect the current landscape of Australian employment are automation, globalisation and collaboration.

A key statement in the report, affecting not just our young, is that over the past 25 years nearly one in ten unskilled men lost their jobs and did not return to the workforce. While there is a bigger narrative behind this finding, the fact is that the balance of skilled to unskilled labour has shifted in our labour force since the 1990's meaning that people who do not have sufficient skills in, for instance, digital literacy or enterprise skills (eg: problem solving and creative thinking) will be increasingly left behind. This is a wave that cannot be stopped.

The implications are huge. At a personal level I counsel myself and those close to me that Jesus' statements in his Sermon on the Mount are no less relevant for me today. Do I believe that my Heavenly Father will continue to feed and clothe me? Do I have faith sufficient for the troubles of today without worrying about tomorrow? While at the same time I remember that God expects me to act consistently with my nature as a rational creature made in his image, "to humans belong the plans of the heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails" (Prov 16:1). The expectation behind the proverb is that humans plan, which suggests thinking, organising and mobilising toward a given goal. The big idea is that a Christian worldview recognises the activity of God behind the scenes.

Coming back to my opening comment on black swans, I realise that my title is an oxymoron. According to Taleb, you can't predict black swans. You only know that a black swan has occurred after the fact and even then it will take time to tell. Yet, maybe history has told us enough from phenomena such as the industrial revolution to realise that we will be undergoing huge shifts in our experience and hence, expectations of employment. May the Lord give us wisdom to be prepared.