Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently unveiled a stunning video of a fully automated assistant. Powered by artificial intelligence, the assistant makes a call to schedule an appointment at a hair salon and then books a table at a restaurant, all in a friendly, chatty tone. That may sound trivial, but it is actually quite revolutionary. The assistant speaks fluently, gives reasonable answers and skilfully circumvents linguistic misunderstandings. It effortlessly passes the Turing test: The people on the other end don’t seem to be aware that they are not talking to a real human being.
With artificial intelligence developing rapidly, Austrians’ fascination with these new technologies is often mixed with fear over their jobs. A recent report showed that 25 per cent believe their job to be at risk of being automated. These fears are not without reason. Artificial intelligence has long outperformed humans, and not only when it comes to board games such as Go and chess. AI also steers vehicles, analyses X-ray images and is now learning another supposed core competence of humans: spoken language.
It is difficult to tell just how far-reaching the impact of automatisation will be on the labour market. Some studies forecast that half of all jobs will be lost within the next 15 years, whereas more cautious estimates believe that ten to 20 per cent of jobs will be at risk in the short term. Nearly all experts agree that automatisation will result in job losses. The question is how many of these losses can be offset by new jobs and which sectors such jobs will be created in.
Discussions have gained momentum in Austria too. Numerous companies and corporate advisors are busy preparing for digitalisation, and even the government agenda suggests that digitalisation is something to be taken seriously. In various contexts, the call to digitalise processes in Austria is mentioned 188 times. Many believe that technological careers will have the highest future potential here. The need to acquire programming skills has become a mantra preached to every child, and transhumanists such as Elon Musk even rave about a symbiosis between humans and machines.
Social jobs, however, are much less sought after, mostly being associated with low pay and little recognition. The same is true when it comes to setting up a social business, with social start-ups typically being perceived as a friendly niche rather than a potential growth area. There are many reasons to give serious thought to choosing a profession or starting a business in the social sector, however.
Let’s start with the raw numbers. Education, the social sector and the health sector accounted for nearly 40 billion euros, or 11 per cent, of Austria’s total value-added in 2017, which does not include millions of hours spent in volunteer work. This roughly corresponds to the total value-added of the IT sector, construction industry and the financial sector combined. You wouldn’t call that a niche. Over the past 20 years, the social sector’s value-added has more than doubled. Demand for labour in the social sector is unlikely to diminish in future. Long-term societal trends such as lifelong learning, demographic change and a growing need for care services will continue to increase demand.
Focusing on human strengths
At the same time, health, education, childcare and nursing are sectors where humans will likely be able to maintain their “competitive edge” over artificial intelligence. While the latter has acquired exceptional skills in individual areas, the creation of general intelligence, creativity and empathy, which are needed in social work, is considered the toughest nut to crack when developing artificial intelligence. Or as Jack Ma, the founder of the digital purchasing platform Alibaba, likes to say: We shouldn’t even try to compete with machines and artificial intelligence but rather focus on our uniquely human strengths.
In addition to greater job security, or at least future viability, social services jobs also have other positive side effects. The social sector’s value-added generates particularly strong multiplier effects in the form of subsequent demand, production and jobs at suppliers. At the same time, job satisfaction is much higher than in other sectors because social work gives meaning to people’s lives. Professionals, volunteers and social enterprises have the opportunity to directly tackle society’s challenges. In view of the foreseeable disruption in the labour market as a result of digitalisation, this doesn’t seem to be such a bad idea.
Meanwhile, many employers have recognised the appeal of being “social”. Nearly all of the Forbes 500 companies publish sustainability reports, often with the aim of attracting qualified employees. University of Chicago economists John List, Daniel Hedblom and Brent Hickman recently showed that this is very good for business. A company set up solely for the purpose of the experiment posted job ads that alternately included and excluded information about the company’s social added value and support for Unicef. Not only did the ads with the CSR component receive 33 per cent more replies, they also attracted better candidates. The people recruited through these ads were up to 25 per cent more productive. For many applicants, however, it is often difficult to determine how socially responsible and sustainable companies actually are. Genuine social impact is not even necessary to achieve the aforementioned productivity effect. The study’s authors convincingly assert that they donated money to Unicef during the course of the experiment. But ultimately, they probably could have achieved the same effect through their ads without giving a single cent – at least in the short term.
Non-profit social enterprises
Many employees have already taken this correlation to heart, a recent study by Deloitte suggests. Around half of respondents said they had little confidence in the ethical integrity of their employers. Even at companies that proclaimed social objectives, these objectives were often considered untrustworthy. The same consulting firm recently provided what seems like the answer to this malaise and proclaimed “the rise of the social enterprise” in another study. It urged the executives of the world’s companies to re-define their organisations as social enterprises. According to this definition, a social enterprise combines profit-making with the nebulously outlined need to respect and support its environment.
What the study nonchalantly overlooks is the fact that it has co-opted a term that throughout the world stands for a system whose guiding principle is not to make a profit but to find solutions to social problems. Another loss of confidence is looming ahead.
The solution: cooperation
In light of such dubious offers, it is no surprise that many employees have taken extreme measures and decided to set up their own social enterprises. One in four companies established in Europe primarily pursues a social mission already – and young people are at the forefront of the trend.
Social work and setting up social businesses can only be one part of the solution, however. Companies need to credibly engage in social endeavours instead of trying to give themselves or established concepts a fresh coat of paint. One way to do this is to pursue intersectoral partnerships with social organisations, allowing companies to acquire additional skills in social sectors that will remain relevant into the digital age. The same applies to policy makers who are currently so committed to digitalisation.
In view of the digital challenges that lie ahead, a country like Austria in particular, which until recently could boast of its social achievements, should try to turn social innovations into one of its top exports. Otherwise, we will, once again, have to rely on the inspiration and concepts of the masterminds from California.