The Information Age/New Work

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Will the widespread introduction of ICT lead to mass unemployment?[edit | edit source]

Jeremy Rifkin suggests that the rise of productivity as a consequence of ICT deployment affects the amount of time worked in two ways. [34] First, labor and time saving technologies have allowed companies to eliminate and dismiss workers en masse. Second, those who manage to hold their jobs are made to work longer hours. For firms a smaller workforce means saving on the cost of providing benefits such as health care.

But the history of the industrial revolution suggests that workers will not disappear; only particular kinds of workers will. Peter Drucker gives us a clue on what kinds of work will disappear. According to Drucker, “the Information Revolution has routinized traditional processes in an untold number of areas.” [35] Just as the industrial revolution mechanized weaving, the information revolution will replace what has been automated by robots. The scenario is not much different from what transpired in previous eras and technology revolutions.

There will always be room for workers, but the areas or fields of demand will change.

What kind of workers will be needed?[edit | edit source]

The breadth of new work in the information age is immense. New workers can be seen in traditional industries (old workers renewed), in new ICT-related services and content provision (the information workers), in infrastructure development and maintenance of the information economy (information managers and entrepreneurs) and in a host of related areas.

Among the most in demand and sought after workers are information technology (IT) professionals. According to a 1999 US Commerce Department study: “For more than 15 years, employment in the core IT occupations—computer scientists, computer engineers, system analysts and computer programmers—has grown at an astounding pace. The growth rate for computer scientists and system analysts has even accelerated in recent years.” [36] The recent downturn has not changed this trend; it has only slowed down the demand.

But it is not only IT professionals who will thrive. What Robert Reich calls “symbolic analysts”—engineers, attorneys, scientists, professors, executives, journalists, consultants and other “mind workers” who engage in processing information and symbols for a living—will occupy a privileged position in that they can sell their services in the global economy. In an economy where information is critical, symbolic analysts or “knowledge workers” will constitute an elite group.

Box 7. The New Workforce (excerpts)

...[T]he knowledge workers, collectively, are the new capitalists. Knowledge has become the key resource, and the only scarce one. This means that knowledge workers collectively own the means of production….

Effective knowledge is specialized. That means knowledge workers need access to an organization—a collective that brings together an array of knowledge workers and applies their specialism to a common end-product. …

Knowledge workers… see themselves as equal to those who retain their services, as ‘professionals’ rather than ‘employees’. The knowledge society is a society of seniors and juniors rather than bosses and subordinates.

… although women have always worked, since time immemorial the jobs they have done have been different from men’s. There was men’s work and there was women’s work. … Knowledge work, on the other hand, is ‘unisex’, not because of feminist pressure but because it can be done equally well by both sexes.

Such workers have two main needs: formal education that enables them to enter knowledge work in the first place, and continuing education throughout their working lives to keep their knowledge up to date.

Although the emergence of knowledge as an important resource increasingly means specialization, knowledge workers are highly mobile within their specialism. They think nothing of moving from one university, one company or one country to another, as long as they stay within the same field of knowledge.

The knowledge society is the first human society where upward mobility is potentially unlimited. Knowledge differs from all other means of production in that it cannot be inherited or bequeathed. It has to be acquired anew by every individual, and everyone starts out with the same total ignorance.

The upward mobility of the knowledge society, however, comes at a high price: the psychological pressures and emotional traumas of the rat race. There can be winners only if there are losers. This was not true of earlier societies. The son of the landless labourer who becomes a landless labourer himself was not a failure. In the knowledge society, however, he is not only a personal failure but a failure of society as well.

Source: “The Next Society: A Survey of the Near Future,” The Economist (November 3, 2001), 8-11.

What are attention givers?[edit | edit source]

Another category of workers that will emerge are attention-givers—people who care for, tend to, or oversee children, the elderly, the disabled, the depressed and anxious, as well as more or less healthy adults who want more attention for themselves and are able and willing to pay for it. [37]

Two reasons account for the growth of the attention industry. First is the increasing number of people who work harder and subcontract family responsibilities, many of which involve giving attention. Second, with the growing productivity of machines (computerized machine tools and robots inside factories, and, in the service economy, automated bank tellers, automated gas pumps, voice activated telephone answering systems, and digital devices), they will soon be capable of doing just about everything. Everything, that is, except personal attention. So those with jobs that have been replaced by highly productive machines sell personal attention instead, and this trend will continue as the years pass. [38]

Will there still be farmers in the future?[edit | edit source]

The information revolution will not eliminate farmers, just as the industrial revolution did not eliminate them. But farming methods will change yet again. More information will help farmers to irrigate only those areas that need water and provide for more effective use of fertilizers, among others. In addition, agricultural biotechnology genetically modifies plants and food sources to maximize their reproduction and nutritional value.

Aside from increased yield, faster communications and transactions and lower transportation costs also ensure more efficient delivery of farm inputs that lead to lower prices and better inventory.

What about entrepreneurs? What role do they have in the new economy?[edit | edit source]

It has been suggested that the Internet is a natural environment for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are innovators who implement change within markets through the introduction of new goods, new methods of production or new markets. Gregory K. Ericksen believes that enterpreneurs will flourish in the new Internet society:

…the Internet world calls for a personality portfolio that comes naturally to entrepreneurs. It demands a willingness to take risks, a whole-hearted commitment to the enterprise, a sense of timing, and a readiness to act fast. The challenge of the Internet is not technology, whish is the enabler. The challenges and the opportunities are based on problem solving and innovations that deliver true value. Ideas that make a difference can and must be put into action quickly. [39]

How do we nurture entrepreneurs?[edit | edit source]

Entrepreneurs flourish in an environment that allows the free flow of ideas, encourages risk taking and accepts failure as a necessary part of doing business. Creating entrepreneurs is also linked to an environment of lifelong learning. The European Commission defines lifelong learning as “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence, within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective.” [40] Lifelong learning involves acquiring and updating all kinds of abilities, interests, knowledge and qualifications to enable citizens to adapt to the information age. If designed and implemented properly, ICT use in education can promote the acquisition of the knowledge and skills that will empower students for lifelong learning in the 21st century.

Box 9. Educating Entrepreneurs

The Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education supports the concept that entrepreneurship is a lifelong learning process that has at least five distinct stages of development. This lifelong learning model assumes that everyone in our educational system should have opportunities to learn at the beginning stages, but the later stages are targeted to those who choose to become entrepreneurs.

Each of the following five stages may be taught with activities that are infused in other classes or as a separate course.

Stage 1 - BASICS: In primary grades, junior high and high school, students should experience various facets of business ownership. At this first stage the focus is on understanding the basics of our economy, career opportunities that result, and the need to master basic skills to be successful in a free market economy. Motivation to learn and a sense of individual opportunity are the special outcomes at this stage of the lifelong learning model.

Stage 2 - COMPETENCY AWARENESS: The students will learn to speak the language of business, and see the problems from the small business owner’s point of view. This is particularly needed in vocational education. The emphasis is on beginning competencies that may be taught as an entire entrepreneurship class or included as part of other courses related to entrepreneurship. For example, cash flow problems could be used in a math class and sales demonstrations could be part of a communications class.

Stage 3 - CREATIVE APPLICATIONS: There is so much to learn about starting a business it is not surprising that so many businesses have trouble. We teach future doctors for many years, but we have expected a small business owner to learn everything by attending several Saturday seminars.

This stage may take place in advanced high school vocational programs, two-year colleges where there are special courses and/or associate degree programs, and some colleges and universities. The outcome is for students to learn how it might be possible to become an entrepreneur.

Stage 4 - STARTUP: After adults have had time to gain job experience and/or further education, many are in need of special assistance in putting a business idea together. Community education programs are widely available in the vocational schools, community colleges, 4-year colleges and universities to provide startup help.

Stage 5 - GROWTH: Often business owners do not seek help until it is almost too late. A series of continuing seminars or support groups can help the entrepreneur recognize potential problems and deal with them in time.

Source: Cathy Ashmore, “Five Stages of Lifelong Learning,” in The Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education [home page on-line]; available from; accessed 29 August 2002.