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What will work look like in 2050 for today’s children?

South Africa in 2050: “Youth unemployment is rising globally and there is global concern about the ability of economies to absorb growing new reserves of labour as well as technology-induced unemployment,” warned South African researcher Siv Helen Hesjedal. Photo: Supplied/Ventureburn
“Youth unemployment is rising globally and there is global concern about the ability of economies to absorb growing new reserves of labour as well as technology-induced unemployment,” warned South African researcher Siv Helen Hesjedal. Photo: Supplied/Ventureburn

Climate change and artificial intelligence-enabled technology development will be key drivers of how work is organised and valued in 2050, but whether it will be a dystopian or progressive future will depend on how far South Africa democratises technology and progresses towards climate neutrality in the present.

This is according to South African researcher Siv Helen Hesjedal who investigated what work in 2050 might look like for children born in the post-Covid era of the late 2020s. This was as part of her MPhil degree in Futures Studies at the Stellenbosch Business School.

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Siv Helen Hesjedal was the top achieving student in the 2022 MPhil Futures Studies programme at Stellenbosch Business School. Photo: Supplied/Ventureburn

Some of the alternative future scenarios of work and society developed as part of the research include pervasive surveillance by government and big business tracking data, income and education earned through credits for community service and “good green behaviour”, self-sufficient liberation colonies escaping the surveillance net, de-colonised co-operative communities run on trade and bartering, and salaried work only for the elite.

Hesjedal said that futures research, the systematic study and exploration of possible alternatives, enabled “interrogation of the assumptions behind policy” and that consideration of alternative futures could be used for policy decision-making and strategising in the present.

“Youth unemployment is rising globally and there is global concern about the ability of economies to absorb growing new reserves of labour as well as technology-induced unemployment,” she said.

“South Africa has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world and while short-term solutions must be put in place for the millions of young people without work, a fundamental re-think of the connection between work and income is also needed.

“Demonstrating possible alternative futures for youth and work, this study could be used to test the robustness of policies such as the South African national youth policy, to widen the scope of the policy beyond current supply and demand-side measures, and to contribute to the policy debate about the introduction of a basic income grant in South Africa.”

Hesjedal added that previous research had shown that supply- and demand-side interventions by government to address youth unemployment had limited impact beyond a micro-level, as the challenges are structural and complex.

Stark realities await in 2050

The top achieving student in this year’s MPhil Futures Studies programme, Hesjedal said her study had shown that future drivers of work would go beyond the current global focus on technology, education and skills, and that South Africa’s policy choices today on energy and decarbonisation would impact the nature of work for the youth of the future.

With climate transition “a stark reality”, ecological reconstruction and circular economies are likely to dominate how work and society are organised, but South Africa will likely remain an unequal society due to deepening of the digital and education divides, she said.

Much research had been done on the impact of technology advancement on society, economies and livelihoods, but “climate transition is rarely taken into account when considering futures of work”.

South Africa has already seen the effects of climate change in prolonged drought and its impact on the agricultural sector, and extreme weather events such as the recent storms and flooding in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that South Africa will continue to be affected by decreases in overall rainfall along with flooding caused by extreme rainfall, increases in arid conditions and droughts, increased weather-related fire risks, and stronger and more frequent tropical cyclones for the rest of the 21st century.

Hesjedal said the Covid-19 pandemic had worsened the employment situation for many young people in Africa, with almost 40% having to pause or halt their schooling, 19% losing their jobs and 8% experiencing pay cuts, with significant numbers forced to move back home, enter the informal economy or take on additional jobs to make ends meet.

“With the understanding of work as integral to human existence and social organisation, questions about the future of work become questions about the future of humanity and social organisation.

“Technological advancement has gradually diminished the role of human labour as the most important factor in production, and the latest developments in digital technology that enable automation of increasing numbers of tasks have spurred new interest in the future of work.

“There is evidence of new frontiers of work as new spheres of human, biological and virtual life are commodified and monetised in a digital and data-driven economy, and this study probes how these factors will come to life in different ways of working and generating income in the future,” she said.

Hesjedal used futures research methods to identify the main drivers of work for the youth of 2050, and to develop three possible scenarios.

The methods included literature review and environmental scanning to identify current trends and futures thinking, analysis of emerging issues that may disrupt existing trends or become new trends, cross-functional analysis to identify the key drivers of change and causal layered analysis (CLA) which critically examines trends and events, and their causes, in order to uncover alternative directions.

She said the socio-economic and health status of a rapidly urbanising youth population was one of the four key drivers identified, with “education, nutrition and mental health as pivotal drivers and enablers of inter-generational social mobility”.

As a driver of the future of work, artificial intelligence (AI) is assumed as becoming ubiquitous, with costs progressively lowering over the coming decades enabling widespread development and application. AI would increasingly determine access to, organisation of and distribution of work and income, she said.

Climate change and rising global temperatures will transform systems of energy, industry, ecology, urban and human settlements.

As the fourth key driver, politics has multiple dimensions, she said, influencing how political parties, worker organisations and social movements operate.

The scenarios put forward different responses to growing distrust in democratic institutions and increasing willingness to sacrifice rights in favour of stability and decrease in crime brought about by surveillance technology, against the drivers of youth and social activism.

Through workshops with youth exploring possible intersections of the four drivers of work in the context of different climate, political and technology images of the future, Hesjedal’s study generated three alternative scenarios for the futures of youth and work in South Africa to 2050.

“In the scenario ‘Work and security redefined’, the ideas of the 1955 Freedom Charter take on a different form as most young people live on basic credits, undertake mandatory community work and hustle for task commissions in the metaverse. While a far cry from what the original Freedom Charter imagined, there is still some form of work and security in 2050.

“In the scenario ‘Senzeni Na’ there is a dual narrative of a dystopian post-work semi-authoritarian regime where inequality prevails, as well as movements of regeneration and resistance. This is a catch-up future where South Africa is in the position of the global North today, an extension of the current present.

“In the third scenario, ‘Decolonise! Decarbonise!’, environmental justice and de-colonisation meet Afro-futurism, and people both work and are politically free. This is the future of possibility, the future co-created, emergent, and yet to be defined,” Hesjedal said.

She said that climate change impact and technology played a major role in all three scenarios, impacting on individual and collective behaviour and activity based on levels of South Africa’s just transition to carbon neutrality and levels of democratization of technology.

“Embedded and ubiquitous AI and related technology are present in all three scenarios, albeit purpose, ownership and uses differ. Work is not absent in any of the future worlds depicted in these scenarios, but the scenarios explore different ways of organising and valuing work through alternative political value systems,” she said.

She believed that all three scenarios contain lessons for the present and how South Africa could develop into the future based on decisions made today.

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