Over the past few years, we have seen kids move from spending a lot of time outdoors and participating in physical activities to simply staying indoors and getting cozy with their computers and iPads for hours playing addictive video games. Agreed, this is not a new trend, however, over the past few years (and certainly exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic), it has become more excruciatingly the norm. Apart from the lack of social interactions, reduced dialogue and in-person communication–which by themselves amount to a crisis situation–there is a graver concern about their mental and physical health. This, unfortunately, is likely to get worse, as the future of work calls for more AI and more digitalization and automation, which means these concerns will be extended to adults as well.

The ratio of time spent by Millennials and Gen Z’ers outdoors or engaging in physical activities compared to “screen time” has decreased astronomically over recent years. Over the same timeframe, the proliferation of obesity and health issues has risen dramatically. While this may be a spurious correlation to link the rise of health issues to screen time, there is a need to monitor this trend carefully, as the future of work calls for more automation and digitalization, which means a greater shift to people sitting behind a computer screen and directing robots or other operations without the need to leave their homes.

The rapid adoption of technology is displacing physical labour at an alarming rate. The World Economic Forum ( WEF) anticipates that 85 million workers will be displaced due to changes in the division of labour, which is a split between humans, machines and algorithms. These 85 million jobs are services and functions that typically require physical activities or at least requires the work to be mobile in some sense. The elimination of those services and replacement with 97 million jobs that inevitably will be less physically engaging is worrying, as it means people will be less mobile and perhaps less interactive.

Unlike other industrial revolutions, Industrial Revolution 4 (Industry 4.0) has the potential to be the most profound, disruptive and counter-productive from a social and human perspective. This is because it will create far fewer “physical” jobs than it will actually displace due to innovation and automation. It should be noted that machine learning and/or AI demands significant resources and effort, however, it requires fewer people to do so. Therefore, it is easy to see that a greater number of hours will be expended in the future, but associated with fewer people. Therefore, the demand for a physical labour force would tend to decrease with increasing automation, digitalization and AI–thus a significant shift in the division of labour equation.

The worrying aspect about our dilemma is that no one can predict exactly what the division of labour equation will look like 10-15 years down the road–not even AI!


Arguably, there is a point where enabling technologies have given humans as much leverage as needed to create a well balanced existence. There is a point when further automation becomes redundant and is actually counter-productive. The problem, however, is that as humans, we don’t know what that cut-off point is. Our instinct and creative impetus override our ability to objectively evaluate the situation and re-channel focus into more productive areas, which are currently under served. For example, the space exploration program started in the 1960’s and is still a major area of investment, even though the chances of gaining any beneficial outcome is marginal. On the other hand, there are countries around the world facing huge deficits in resources, basic water and sanitation services, food and shelter, which if tackled with the same investment would lead to a better planet!

The current push for innovation and automation, unlike in other industrial revolutions, when it was pursued mostly in the interest of betterment in living standards and wellbeing for society, is chiefly profit driven and motivated. This current trend purports the reduction of the human workforce, i.e., the replacing of manual labour with robotics and/or automation to increase production, capacity and profits. This is being done even in markets where conditions are suitable for a human labour force. Take the proliferation of self-checkout services in retail stores, which have replaced human checkout clerks. The rationale of doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be extended to this post-pandemic stage, however, more and more retailers are moving to these services. There are certainly areas where innovation has made a profound positive impact, such as video tolling, which aids commute time, but also remove ticket patrons from a very polluted highway corridor as well as address other safety concerns. The motive behind automation and digitalization is not always transparent, just as how granting permission to an app to use your location data, camera and microphone gives the app developer more data about your lifestyle than intended.

There has not been any “recent” studies done to show, categorically, that the inevitable push for automation and digitalization will improve the lives of people on a global basis.


Climate change is a major concern around the globe, which does not stem from pure human labour, but the industrial and commercial activities associated with processes, which if modified to be more efficient and conscientious, would significantly reduce GHG emissions. Therefore, if there are aspects of processes that can be automated or digitalized to reduce emissions, then those aspects should be targeted for innovation. Further, an efficient process, engaging human labour force, can be as “clean” as one that’s automated–it’s a matter of design. A self-driving electric car is just as carbon neutral as an electric vehicle driven by a human. In fact, being stuck in traffic and looking over at your traffic neighbour to share a reassuring smile would be a lot more pleasant than looking across to see one that’s driverless–perhaps eerie to say the least. This is precisely why the social deficit created by automation is unquantifiable and cannot be replicated by say a human working alongside a machine–do you want to grab a coffee? Oh, sorry, forgot that you’re a machine and so you take only lube oil, which unfortunately does not go well with my stomacha blank stare of bewilderment ensues! The importance of this aspect of our existence cannot be overlooked or supplanted by a full-fledged drive to increase profits.

Undoubtedly, a profit-driven organization will take the position that their primary goal is to remain profitable in a competitive market. Therefore, governments need to step in and ensure that businesses are making decisions that are good for its citizenry and not just for bottom line. A focus on ESG (environmental, social and governance) is one way to do this, but currently the push for automation, digitalization and machine learning has sidelined this concern. This is why it is an urgent matter, since companies investing millions of dollars in AI and machine learning will be compelled, due to the sunken cost effect, to use it even if the prognosis shows a detrimental impact to society in the long run. But the human labour force will not be the only casualty of an over zealous pursuit of a burgeoning digital and automated world: Let’s talk about culture!

Culture is driven by the shared experiences of people in a community or organization and is very important in solidifying the uniqueness of being in one place versus another. Culture is that effervescent appeal you feel when you go somewhere for the first time or different from where you typically go. It is created by many things, but most importantly by the people. A digitalized and automated world will create its own culture, but it would be not one that creates a positive effervescent appeal. In such a world, culture as we know it becomes loss and standardization becomes the norm.

You can see glimpses of the future in present day interactions, where in-person interactions must compete with someone’s quick glances at a cell phone screen or a TikTok video. Take Gen Z’ers for example, who are already facing a cultural identity crisis due to the very globalized nature of video games, such as Roblox. They connect more quickly and naturally with friends over the Internet than with their communities, neighbours, and local resources. They are tempted to “flatten” or relinquish their ethnic or gender identities, using avatars to fit in with other gamers so that they are not singled out or discriminated against. Girls are afraid to reveal their gender for fear of prejudice, being bullied or predatorily targeted. These are all issues that can only become deeper and more entrenched as automation and digitalization are adhocly promoted without a deeper perusal of their future implications.

Finally, a digital and automated world has many lucrative and positive benefits for the future and even today–this is no different from previous industrial revolutions. However, we cannot approach the “future of work” with a mindset that it will only bring good–it is up to us to determine how it unfolds. There is ample time to act now–but the clock is ticking. The focus of the current Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, is significantly different than others–it is about transforming the division of labour, not for betterment, but for production and profits. This will increase anxiety, health concerns, social concerns and impact the wellbeing of millions of people globally. It is time for governments, organizations and us (yes, “us”, not the US) to Stop. Think. And re-focus our attention and resources on creating a more balanced, global existence — one that fosters sustainability, advancement and a better environment and lifestyle for everyone–not just for some!

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Categories : Categories : Change, Leadership, Potential

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