Technological Displacement and Fatima’s Cyber Career
By Yogen Mudgal, BSc Accounting and Finance at Warwick Business School
A recent government advertisement about retraining the workforce came with a message to “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot” and displayed the image of a ballerina, claiming her next job “could be in cyber”, shown in Figure One. The advertisement received immediate backlash from the public to the extent that government ministers had to disown the campaign, which the culture secretary referred to as ‘crass”. A lot went wrong with the government’s messaging, communication and even comprehension of this situation, but it brought to life a very important and under acknowledged message; the dynamics of our economy have changed.
Figure One: “Rethink, Reskill, Reboot” Advertisement, HM Government
This is not to say that the downturn in the arts is permanent or that the swaths of our workforce is irrelevant now, but perhaps that even when this pandemic and its complementary economic downturn ends, life will not be the same again. Aside from the apparent lack of sympathy for those employed in the badly hit performing arts business, the government and the world seem not to have realised how our economy has changed. It was rather naïve to target the arts in the first place, because for most of us stuck at home and living alone, watching movies and web series is the only escape from the dreary reality outside.
Indeed, it would have made much more sense for the advert to read “Fatima’s next performance could be on Instagram, let’s help her become a successful online content-creator.” This is because as any rational consumer could tell you that Fatima’s talents and skills are not irrelevant, but her distribution channel and revenue model needs evolve with a changing economy. It’s not just the government that seems to be failing to understand this concept, but businesses, academic institutions and societies at large. The belief that artists need to ‘retrain’ is built into a simplistic view that technology is a business of its own rather than understanding that technology simply provides an infrastructure for new marketplaces and business models to emerge.
The lack of being able to perceive technology as a medium of business is so deeply seated into how companies think, that it has not just hurt corporate strategies but also led to mislabelling of industries creating new challenges for investors and employees. For example, to think of challenger banks as being in the technology and not the lending business means ignoring the effect of interest rates and subpar loans on their valuations. Similarly, to perceive Facebook or Google as information and communication platforms rather than data and marketing companies leads to inappropriate regulations and oversight. Most ‘tech’ businesses in the marketplace should in fact be called financial services, or marketing, or business services companies to give a sense of the services they actually provide.
When we successfully separate the use of technology in the way a business interacts with its customers and employees or runs its processes from what that business does to generate cash, stakeholders' view of that company completely changes. This has huge ramifications for asset managers, dealmakers, regulators and employees working in a particular industry. One of the best examples of this is the dotcom-like boom in technology stocks earlier this year. Experts could argue that the surge, in part, was driven by retail traders and the increase in online trends due to Covid-19. But even so, much of it came without the realisation that a prolonged recession would hit many customer-facing online retailers over the longer term.
Dealmakers are working on M&A transactions based on outdated information, hoping that scale can lead to better investment in technology, rather than looking for projects that bring technical knowledge into the existing business. Academic institutions are buying into the coding rush without being able to contextualise or even consider what different sets of IT skills pupils studying varied disciplines could use in their workplace. Asset Managers repeatedly ignore the core indicators and drivers for such companies, buying into the hype on the fears of missing big opportunities. And above all, employees live in constant fear of being displaced by technology without being given an opportunity to realise that their skill-sets and experiences are as relevant as before.
So, yes, our economy and our jobs have changed. The use of data to advertise, using cloud services for human resources management and movie releases on Netflix are just some instances of how industries are being effectively reshaped. And yes, Fatima’s job will change, but that does not mean that she needs to give up her passion for ballet for a role in cybersecurity. The global economy is on yet another major cusp and businesses will evolve with that. Some jobs will be lost; tellers, salespersons, back-end paper processors might need to seek new careers, but most professions will quite simply change, and new opportunities will avail themselves. With rapid innovation, it is easy to forget the essence of dance is still the same, albeit there are now different ways to watch the ballet.
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