Delivering a future of work

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 1 April 2016

What is the difference between a letter and a pizza?

Well, we have become used to receiving the former only three times a week. However, we expect the latter to arrive within half an hour of ordering, piping hot and ideally with free delivery.

We also prefer receiving pizza deliveries because the bulk of our mail is just bills these days.

Oh, and there is another difference: Letters are still hand-delivered by posties, whereas Dominos has just announced an experiment with delivery robots in New Zealand.

What both pizzas and letters have in common, however, is that their delivery will require less labour in the future.

In fact, that is the reason why NZ Post just announced the loss of 500 jobs. It is the logical conclusion from falling mail volumes as communication has turned digital.

So it is only appropriate that Labour is thinking about the Future of Work. For the past year, the party has been conducting its inquiry into the changes happening in our labour market. Good on them.

It is welcome that political leaders are addressing the challenges of a future in which, according to Labour, “almost half of all jobs are going to disappear”.

We need to face up to a reality in which the creative destruction of the market place, combined with new technological possibilities, will make whole professions and industries obsolete.

Unfortunately, Labour’s response to NZ Post’s announcement shows that much more creative thinking is needed.

In a media release, opposition leader Andrew Little said that the “Government can’t just stand by and watch as NZ Post cuts 500 jobs without having a plan to help workers through the transition and into new roles”.

Though an understandable opposition reaction against the backdrop of concrete job losses, such government intervention on a case-by-case basis is not what is needed to future-proof the labour market.

The real challenge is to provide people with the right set of transferable skills that allows them to move to the jobs of the future.

Sure, this is not the answer to those just laid off at NZ Post. But it still remains the best that government can do in the long run.

There is no doubt there will be jobs in the future. But they will be different from our jobs today.

Someone still needs to design, service and repair those robots and drones that bring our pizzas.

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