The future of work: we must become digitally fitter

In any discussion with friends or acquaintances about the future of work, the topic of digitalisation is bound to come up at some point. This issue is so omnipresent that some people are starting to wonder: will IT specialists soon be the only job-seekers in demand everywhere, while all other professions lose significance? Will jobs only be created in the technology sectors? Must we therefore learn programming in order to be fit for the future?

In order to answer these questions, it is worth first taking a look at the developments in the workplace and the predictions made by experts concerning the future of work. Experience so far shows, on the one hand, that technological progress contributes to the disappearance of jobs. On the other hand, it also creates new jobs. Before the Corona crisis, employment had even increased due to technological development – although this had not been the case in all countries, nor in all socio-demographic groups.

New job descriptions

Basically, automation will change a lot of professions. The most severely affected are occupations in offices, in sales and trade, in the transportation sector and logistics, the manufacturing industry and construction. Automation will also have a strong influence on occupations in some service sectors, for example in finance, translation and taxation. Occupations in these areas have one thing in common: routine tasks following clear patterns play a large role, and technology can therefore easily take over.

Conversely, the least affected are jobs which involve cognitively demanding and creative tasks and social interaction. These tend to be found in the following sectors: education and academia, healthcare, social work, the arts and media, corporate management, legal services, engineering and information technology.

On the one hand, therefore, jobs will disappear. However, on the other hand, many new job descriptions will arise as a result of digitalisation. There is a demand for data analysts and data architects, specialists in networking, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, and designers of new intelligent machines, robots and 3D printers. All these professions require a complex bundle of skills from various fields such as information technology, statistics and business management.

At the same time, jobs, which require no special expertise, are on the rise. Digital platforms drive this development. It is here that commissioning parties and service providers, also known as crowdworkers, come together. They only work together for a particular project. Increasing numbers of people are working in this way – on a self-employed basis rather than in standard employment relationships.

But digitalisation also changes how we work. For example, since the Corona pandemic, educational work has taken place almost exclusively in digital form. The healthcare sector is increasingly investing in solutions based on artificial intelligence. These could result in doctors having less freedom in the future to decide what kind of treatment to apply.

Which competences will we need in the future?

As in educational work and in the healthcare sector, digital tools will be used in almost every profession – and this requires new competences. The Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft, in cooperation with companies, has defined what is known as a Future Skills Framework. It contains the skills that will become noticeably more important in the next five years both in professional and social life.

Firstly, it comprises technological skills. This means the competences required in order to design transformative technologies. These include, for example, the capability of analysing complex data, such as the development of artificial intelligence. Web development, user-centric design and the development of blockchain technologies are further examples.

Secondly, digital basic skills will become more important. Such are the competences that enable people to find their way in a digitalised environment and to participate in it. These include, for example, digital learning and the capacity for joint (collaborative) work. The confident handling of data on the web (digital literacy) is also one of these basic skills.

The third category of skills that will become more important in the future are non-digital key competencies. From the companies’ point of view, these are the competencies and characteristics, which will gain importance in the workplace of the future. The capability of solving problems, as well as creativity and perseverance will be crucial. The capacity for creativity and imagination is the “most important human key qualification of the future”, according to the future study “Life, Work, Education 2035+” by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

Acquiring digital basic skills and lifelong learning

In summary, we can therefore say that digitalisation will influence all professions. For this reason, we must become digitally fitter. This does not mean that we must all be able to program. However, there will be no avoiding digital basic skills.

Given the developments triggered by digitalisation, we must be aware that, even if we remain in the same profession, we will not carry out the same tasks our whole working life. We must therefore be prepared for continual personal development. In order to keep pace with digitalisation, shorter learning cycles will be necessary in different phases of life. The responsibility for this, however, should not just be with each individual. It has to be a social task. The education and social systems must also find an answer to these developments.

Virtual Coffee Break on the Future of Work

Which developments in the working world have you observed in your country and your profession? How are you dealing with them? Exchange views with other alumni and discuss the topic in the Virtual Coffee Break of Alumniportal with Marija Stambolieva on December 17.

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About the alumna and author of this article

  • Dr. Marija Stambolieva Dr. Marija Stambolieva

Dr. Marija Stambolieva is a research associate and lecturer at the University of Osnabrück, where she is coordinating the  development of an up-to-date curriculum in mechanical engineering against the background of digitalisation. She writes a blog about digital topics, the future of work and lifelong learning, and has been funded by the DAAD three times: first during her master’s degree at the University of Hamburg, then for a research stay and finally to complete her doctorate at the University of Kassel.

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September 2020

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