Making our future work: Bernard Salt looks beyond COVID-19

Until this year Bernard Salt predicted the top three crises likely to befall humanity would be climate, nuclear and military devastation. But not a global pandemic. “I never saw it coming,” confesses Australia’s leading demographer. Nor had anyone else.

“No one has ever considered the impacts of a global pandemic of this scale,” says Salt, drawing on his 30 years of public commentary. “It was not on the popular radar at all.”

But having said that, “it’s a demographer’s dream, dealing with numbers every day and speculating what will change, how we will change”.

And using data to create a narrative for a society that is looking for a pathway forward.

“What I’ve learnt is that no one has any idea” he explains, “and people want to make sense of things – now more than ever.”

Fight for survival of our way of life

“Prior to the Coronavirus, we knew our pathway, we didn’t question our lifestyle. What COVID has done is to question our way of life.

“We are in fact in a fight for survival for our way of life and the lifestyle we have come to expect.”

And we’ve sure fought hard to hang onto it. Reflecting on the early social response in Australia to the lockdown Salt refers to the negative behaviour of hoarding and flouting the rules, citing the defiant crowding in Bondi back in March.

But then, all that changed. “Then we complied. I think that point was Anzac Day. We came together and we were over all that hoarding, people were helping each other and getting to know their community.”

Job losses and gains

And all the while, businesses pivoted.

“Business is very good at finding a solution. The agility, adaptability and survival instincts of business I particularly admire,” says Salt.

Those skills are what will get us through this crisis, but for some areas of business, like travel, tourism, hospitality and entertainment, the impact has been cruel: in the first three months of the pandemic 106,000 waiters and 44,000 baristas lost their jobs.

But businesses in logistics, warehousing and  fulfillment have flourished, according to Salt. Multi-media managers and webpage designers are going gangbusters with a 212% increase between February and May this year, with 11,000 people hired during this time. “The geeks are hot!” laughs Salt.

GPs have come out of retirement, medical lab technicians are in demand, and agri-business is thriving. “The regions have done very well, they’re well-watered, they’ve largely escaped the impact of COVID and they’re loving it!”

Social impact

In terms of the impact on broad social groups, millennials in their 20s and 30s are most badly affected as they’re the least skilled, most casualised workers and Generation Xers in their late 30s and 40s who have taken out bigger mortgages for a growing family “have all their bases loaded,” says Salt with concern.

And the baby boomers and the retirees have also been hit hard. “My own super and retirement planning has gone out the window. I can’t even go on a cruise!”.

Working from the HOBO space

So, until this is all over Bernard Salt will have to stay in his HOBO space – his proudly self-named “home office broadcast outlet”. Like much of the rest of the world, he is working from home, and this is catching on as a permanent arrangement.

Although figures showing that only 4 to 5 % of the workforce are home-based have not budged over 20 years, Salt forecasts this will move to 10 to 15% post-lockdown in Australia and beyond.

That’s not the only thing on the agenda. This change in lifestyle will mean a shift in popular residential areas from the inner-city suburbs close to the CBD to an inner-middle ring 5 to 15 kms from the city, predicts Salt. Commercial real estate will also need to adjust their focus, and decentralise, moving their business centres to regional and suburban areas for their workers who will be spending 3 to 4 days a week at home.

And those future workers will be working in a more collaborative relationship with their bosses, whose children, dogs and washing they regularly encounter in on-screen meetings. “Gone will be the command and control world of the baby boomers!” he laughs.

Human skills in an AI future

But what work will those workers be doing? Salt knows that the common expectation would be work around science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – but he thinks that any repetitive work in those areas will be done by artificial intelligence (AI), and argues for its benefits.

“Automation doesn’t lessen your job, it frees up time for you to do what you’re good at. And the shift towards technology will actually create further prosperity.”

Human skills though will still be valued. “What AI can’t do is to be entrepreneurial, be creative, be caring.”

So in the post-COVID world, those in the creative, caring and entrepreneurial sectors will thrive, and those with premium personal skills will be the victors, predicts Salt. Self-confidence, sociability and the ability to build professional relationships.

“My great revelation over the last five years is that the future and success belong to the optimists. No pessimists ever get there. Another term for it is: do you have a healthy dose of can-do-ism?” Over to you.

Bernard Salt was a guest presenter in the session “The Changing Work Environment and Future Workforce” at Thomson Reuters’ recent Return to Better Powered by Synergy virtual conference.

Register here to watch all on-demand sessions on Global Compliance, Transformation and Virtual Workforce.

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