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AI and the Future of Work: A Strategic Roadmap for Navigating Labor, Ethics, and Innovation

The Double-Edged Sword of AI

In a world captivated by the promise and potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI), let’s not overlook the intricate implications it brings to labor markets, ethics, and society. As someone who has dived deep into these issues, including a recent talk on preparing your workforce for Generative AI, it’s time to go beyond surface-level discussions. AI isn’t just a tool or a marvel; it’s a game-changing force that demands our attention, critical thinking, and actionable strategies.

The Opportunity and Risks AI Presents

AI holds the allure of untapped possibilities, from reshaping industries to optimizing our daily lives. Yet, this technological wonder comes with its own Pandora’s box of challenges. From the recent Writers Guild of America (WGA) strikes to echoes of tech labor disputes of the late 2010s, we are witnessing real-time evidence of AI’s disruptive impact. These labor tensions are more than just isolated incidents; they are a clarion call for re-evaluation and action, echoing in boardrooms and policy chambers alike.

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Why We Should Care: The Real-World Stakes

Ignoring the seismic shifts induced by AI is not an option. It’s not just about AI replacing human jobs; it’s about how we, as a society, will adapt, react, and ideally, prosper. Policymaking, ethical frameworks, income equity, and workforce re-skilling are not peripheral discussions; they are essential pillars supporting the architecture of our AI-augmented future. We’ll dive deep into each of these fascinating facets, providing insightful perspectives and practical solutions for leaders and those devoted to the world of work.

AI is indeed a game-changer. Yet, it’s not a zero-sum game but a dynamic field of interplay between humans and machines, ethics and policies, aspirations and apprehensions. Strap in as we navigate this multifaceted landscape, for the final act of this unfolding drama is far from written, and the script we choose to greenlight today will shape the society of tomorrow.

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The Tipping Point: WGA Strikes vs Tech Strikes of the 2010s

Recently, data newcomer Aura created an analysis of the employment patterns in the US film and television industry—amidst a rather volatile labor backdrop—that offers compelling insights into the growing schism between traditional human roles and the burgeoning capabilities of AI.

Let’s unpack this recent rollercoaster of an event that left Hollywood seemingly standing still—striking writers and actors brought Tinsel Town to its knees. This is an episode not even “Black Mirror” could’ve scripted better. And to get this insightful piece from Matthew Chan, a Bain analyst, helps me, at least, to make sense of what it all does and could mean.

To understand the impact of strikes on AI hiring, you can compare the current data with similar periods of labor unrest in other sectors or geographies.

What happened to AI job postings during the tech sector strikes of the late 2010s, for example?

During the tech sector strikes of the late 2010s, the industry experienced a rather paradoxical scenario regarding AI job postings. While one might expect that labor unrest would slow down hiring, the reality was a bit more nuanced.

Drawing from the data-rich insights provided by this NCBI study, it becomes clear that the labor market’s relationship with AI is not a zero-sum game. Both the tech strikes of the late 2010s and the entertainment strikes of 2023 seem to reinforce the study’s findings that while AI certainly has a transformative impact on the labor market, it doesn’t necessarily equate to job loss. In fact, what we’re seeing is a more complex realignment of skills, roles, and strategies both within and across sectors.

In both timeframes, companies have been looking not to replace human workers but to augment their capabilities, to expand into new domains, and to navigate the ethical and social complexities that AI introduces. In other words, AI isn’t merely a tool for cutting costs but a strategic asset that necessitates new kinds of expertise and governance.

What Strikes Tell Us About Our Values

Therefore, labor strikes in various sectors, while indicative of real concerns and immediate challenges, are also reflective of broader industry shifts. Such events serve as critical junction points for collective bargaining, strategy reevaluation, and ethical consideration, encapsulating the continuous dialogue between technological progress and its societal implications. During both periods, AI job postings actually saw a moderate increase, but the nature of those postings began to shift. Here are some key observations:

Roll With the Punches: Resilience in the Job Market

The late 2010s’ tech strikes revealed something that might have caught a few by surprise—resilience. Companies didn’t hit the ‘eject’ button on their workforce. Instead, they went for a skillset remix. What’s crucial here is to recognize that automation doesn’t mean annihilation. The job market isn’t a glass ornament; it’s a rubber ball—the more you throw it, the higher it bounces back.

Before the strikes, the majority of AI postings were for more generalized roles—Data Scientists, Machine Learning Engineers, etc. Post-strikes, companies started posting more specialized roles, suggesting that organizations were looking to fill very specific AI needs that couldn’t be easily offshored or automated. For instance, the demand for experts in Ethics in AI, Human-AI interaction, and AI Governance saw a marked increase.

A recently released Brookings paper puts forth a compelling argument for viewing the job market as a dynamic, resilient system. This underscores our original premise that the labor market’s relationship with AI is not a zero-sum game but one that can adapt and evolve. For those fighting the good fight in the world of work, from vendors to internal practitioners, this resilience can be used as a selling point in dialogues with various stakeholders, reinforcing the fact that technological changes need not be feared if managed wisely.

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The Global Shuffle: International Trends

Hold onto your hats because AI is globalizing like crazy. While the strike has seen a tentative resolution with agreements concerning the application of AI in the entertainment industry, this isn’t a single-episode drama; it’s a multi-season saga. Why? Because AI isn’t just a Hollywood story; it’s a global narrative.

Aura’s data has showcased something interesting: while demand for AI roles in the US remained constant, it’s flourishing on an international scale, increasing by around 75% over the last year.

While the U.S. and China are still the LeBron and Durant of the AI world, other countries are entering the draft. The 2023 data shows a 75% uptick in AI job postings outside the U.S. Forget borders; we’re talking about a global workforce realignment, and it’s hotter than a freshly baked SaaS IPO.

Same exact trajectory in the strikes of the late 2010s… the geographical focus of these postings began to broaden. Prior to the strikes, the concentration was heavily biased towards Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. After the strikes, there was a noticeable uptick in postings in other regions, possibly indicating a strategy to diversify talent pools and mitigate risks associated with labor unrest in particular geographies. The implications of AI-driven labor shifts are not limited by geography; they are shaping a global economic chessboard where labor, regulation, and capital interact in increasingly complex ways.

Artificial Intelligence: From Ethics to Policy, offers a European perspective that is particularly valuable for a global analysis. It presents regulatory approaches and ethical considerations and highlights the EU’s efforts to establish a unified framework for AI governance. As we discuss the need for a multi-stakeholder approach, the EU’s initiatives serve as a practical example of what such regulatory coordination can look like on an international scale. This underscores the need for globally harmonized AI standards, including labor market impacts.

Let the AI Games Begin: Sector-Specific Growth

Picture this: You’re in the late 2010s, and there’s a thunderstorm of tech strikes. You’d expect companies to go on a firing spree. Nope, they’re doing the opposite—they’re betting on AI.  AI isn’t just the shiny new toy; it’s the cornerstone for reshaping industries like healthcare, finance, and, you guessed it, tech.

There was an increase in C-level and other high-level AI strategic roles, like Chief AI Officers or VPs of AI Strategy. This indicated a realization among companies that AI isn’t just an operational concern but a strategic imperative that warrants C-suite oversight. Correlating AI hiring trends with investment in AI technologies by the entertainment industry adds an interesting dimension to our conclusions.

High-Earning Roles on the Rise: A Symphonic Duet with Strikes

This brings us to the delicious intersection of AI, labor strikes, and high-dollar roles. NBER highlights the increase in high-earning roles tied to AI capabilities. During the strikes in both the tech sector and the entertainment industry, employers were fishing for top-tier talents who could not just use AI but also strategize around it. And let’s be real—those folks aren’t working for chump change. This could lend another layer of complexity to the strikes: we’re not just talking job loss or stability but a deep reconfiguration of what roles are worth in cold, hard cash.

Contingency Planning

One crucial aspect was the rise in contract roles and partnerships with AI consultancies. It’s a smart strategy that allowed them to keep up the development momentum while also managing the risks of hiring full-time staff in times of labor uncertainty. For those considering a relationship with an AI consultancy, it’s crucial to understand what standards they’re holding themselves to.

The EU study proposes a risk-based approach to AI regulation, categorizing AI systems based on their potential societal impact. For instance, AI systems used in HR and workforce management could be classified under a specific risk category that dictates the level of scrutiny they should be subjected to.

The Job Chameleon: Skill Transformation & Risk Mitigation

AI is like the Swiss Army knife of the modern job market. Sure, it can cut through some traditional roles, but it’s also popping open bottles of new opportunities we didn’t even see coming. Ethical considerations, AI governance—you name it, we’ve got a new role for it. Particularly in the wake of the 2023 entertainment industry strikes, we’re seeing that AI isn’t the villain; it’s more like an enigmatic protagonist, complicating but enriching the plot.

This UK report by PwC points out that AI technology is causing a significant skills gap, which resonates with what we already know from our other studies. However, it goes further by emphasizing the need for reskilling and vocational training.

We know that organizations ramped up investments in employee reskilling programs post-late 2010 strikes, with a particular focus on AI and automation. This can be seen as both a risk mitigation strategy and an acknowledgment of the evolving needs of the business landscape.

Chasing the Elusive AI Skillset: The NBER Lens

One of the first bombshells that the NBER paper drops is about how employers are on a treasure hunt for AI skills. Not just in Silicon Valley or Wall Street but across a range of industries. The NCBI study told us this too, but NBER adds granularity: employers are after specific AI capabilities like natural language processing and machine learning algorithms. So, if you’re worried AI is an insatiable beast swallowing jobs, think again. It’s more like a talent scout on a national tour, eyeing specialists to form an all-star team.

Public Sentiment and Corporate Image

In Politico’s  If a job gets cut in the AI forest… the author underscores the “skill-bias” in AI adoption, which has led to a public perception that AI could exacerbate social inequalities. The World Bank study also emphasizes the growing concern over income distribution as AI gains prominence. While AI could be a boon for productivity, it might exacerbate income inequalities if not managed carefully. The strikes, particularly in sectors like entertainment where wages can be wildly disparate, can serve as social pressure points to address these inequalities.

It’s not just about what companies or even researchers are saying; it’s about the prevailing winds of public opinion. The strikes, in this context, can be seen as a manifestation of a more extensive societal anxiety that is increasingly reflected in public policy debates.

The Brookings paper’s focus on job reallocation aligns well with our call for economic adaptability. It supports the idea that economic models need to account for not just job losses but the entire lifecycle of job roles as they evolve in the age of AI. This may necessitate new kinds of metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) for assessing job market health beyond traditional unemployment rates.

In the late 2010s, companies also began to tread carefully in terms of public relations. Job postings began to include more language about ethical AI use, possibly in response to the public sentiment generated by the strikes. I’m wondering if we’ll see the same here.

As the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes took the spotlight, delving into public sentiment can provide valuable insights into how these strikes impacted industry perception and even inform recruitment strategies. Quantifying sentiment can be achieved through leveraging social media analytics, conducting consumer surveys, or tapping into expert interviews. It’s imperative, especially for a marketer, to discover the valuable narratives behind the numbers.

Companies were clearly more cautious about being perceived as contributing to job losses through automation or AI. We see this playing out on the individual levels with the Drew Conspiracy 😉

Drew Carey, stepping in like a sitcom dad with a bottomless wallet, single-handedly bankrolling coffee and snacks for the striking scribes and thespians. It’s like an episode of “The Price is Right,” but the prize is worker rights and good old caffeine. Talk about a man of the people!

On the other end of the Drew spectrum, we have Drew Barrymore, who attempted a resurrection of her show in the middle of the strike and was summarily, and very publicly, slapped down. Interestingly, big corporations seem to walk away from these “don’t cross the picket line” scenarios relatively unscathed, but individuals like Drew Barrymore? Not so much.

It’s not that we think she deserved a free pass—after all, these A-listers have the money to sustain their staff through strikes. But it’s worth noting that when corporations do it, it’s business as usual.

Corporate Strategy Shift

Strategically, companies seemed more cautious about linking AI directly to labor cost savings in internal documents and investor communications. Instead, there was a greater emphasis on AI’s role in enhancing user experience, driving innovation, and opening new revenue channels.

The Brookings paper dives deeper into the role of job reallocation and the so-called ‘churn’ in the job market. It posits that while there’s a common perception that AI and technology lead to job losses, the reality is more nuanced. Job roles are not merely disappearing; they are also being reallocated. Companies are restructuring and redefining roles to better leverage AI capabilities, contributing to a dynamic, shifting landscape.

These multiple shifts represent not merely a reactionary response to labor unrest but a broader realignment of corporate strategy around AI. Strikes catalyzed a kind of introspection and strategic redirection that might have otherwise taken years to materialize. According to this (2020 WEF) report, the advent of AI and new technologies will displace jobs, but it will also create 97 million new roles.

The Productivity Angle: Beyond Headcount

A World Bank paper underscores the potentially positive impact of AI on overall productivity. This says much about the resilience of the job market as highlighted by the NCBI study. The strikes and labor disruptions might be viewed as symptoms of the larger issue of productivity and output maximization, a core economic principle. Companies aren’t just looking to automate jobs; they’re striving for efficiency, which, as we’ve discussed, doesn’t necessarily entail cutting jobs but rather repositioning the workforce.

Rethinking Rural: AI’s Spread Beyond Metro Hotspots

One of the most unexpected Easter eggs in the NBER paper is its insight into rural job markets. The data shows a rising demand for AI skills not just in tech-savvy cities but also in rural areas. This intersects intriguingly with the NCBI’s finding on the globalization of AI roles. Put these together, and you’ve got a potent mix that challenges our geographically confined narratives. AI’s reach is not limited by city limits or national borders; it’s a tide lifting boats in unexpected corners.

While it seems ages ago, examining the late 2010s tech sector strikes serves as an informative backdrop for understanding potential industry reactions and adaptations to similar labor actions today, like the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in the entertainment industry.

Both the NCBI and NBER studies remind us that AI isn’t confined to just tech or finance. It’s more of a universal donor, infusing innovation into every sector it touches. This correlates well with the diverse nature of strikes we’ve seen—from tech to entertainment. It suggests that the labor force is not only adapting across different sectors but also that the concerns driving strikes may have universal themes. We’re looking at an interconnected ecosystem of skills, roles, and economic currents.

It begs the question, what happens in Hollywood doesn’t stay in Hollywood—will we see similar strikes across the globe? Perhaps more importantly, it highlights a fascinating trend: major studios aren’t the ones hoarding AI talent. Instead, adjacent industries like video gaming companies and streaming services are actively recruiting in this space. So the writers and actors aren’t just wrestling with the George Lucases and Steven Spielbergs of the world; they’re grappling with the entire ecosystem that supports and, indeed, profits from their creative labor.

So what does this mean for the industry at large? First, the strike isn’t an isolated incident. It’s symptomatic of larger global trends and changing dynamics between human talent and technology. Second, while concerns about AI taking jobs seem to be valid, it’s critical to understand the nuanced forces that are driving this change. If the strike has done anything, it’s to force this conversation into the open, making it a narrative that everyone, not just Hollywood, should be watching closely.

Enhancing the Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration Initiative

The aforementioned If a Job Gets Cut in the AI Forest” delves into the increasing urgency to address the AI impact on the labor market through public policy. It discusses the federal initiatives aiming to understand and regulate the role of AI in job displacement. The fact that AI’s role in labor is reaching the corridors of power indicates a growing acknowledgment that this is not merely an HR or a boardroom concern. It’s becoming a societal issue that requires policy frameworks.

The Economics and Emotions Behind Labor Disputes

Brooking’s findings underscore the need for industry leaders and policymakers to work together to manage this job ‘churn’ effectively. A collaborative approach can ensure that workforce transitions happen smoothly, with minimal social and economic disruptions. Regulatory frameworks could be designed to incentivize companies to retrain employees for newly reallocated roles, thereby mitigating the negative impacts of rapid technological changes.

The PwC paper, titled, The Potential Impact of Artificial Intelligence on UK Employment and the Demand for Skills, delves into the role of government regulation in balancing the benefits and drawbacks of AI, arguing that well-structured regulation could serve as a fulcrum to tilt the balance in favor of equitable growth.

Interestingly, the UK study raises the concept of a “new social contract,” which is remarkably pertinent to our examination of strikes and labor disputes. This could be seen as a formalization of the collective bargaining that we’ve identified as a common thread running through labor actions across sectors and geographies. The EU study emphasizes the importance of non-economic values in AI governance. In a global discussion, the European perspective brings a valuable counterpoint to more market-driven models, reinforcing the need for a balanced approach that considers societal well-being alongside economic performance.

Charting a Path Forward: Navigating the AI-Labor Intersection in a Rapidly Evolving Landscape

The discourse surrounding the impact of AI on the labor market is ever-evolving, fueled by real-world events, academic insights, and policy frameworks. Recent happenings, like the one reported by the BBC on the use of AI in the creative process, or NBC News detailing the role of AI in generating text for media companies, underscore the penetration of AI into diverse sectors, not merely as a disruptive force but as an enabler of new capabilities. Bloomberg’s post-strike analysis rightly suggests that while the immediate labor conflicts might be resolved, the conversation around AI and jobs is just beginning to gain traction.

The New Normal: AI as an Industry-agnostic Game-changer

IBM’s report, as highlighted by Slashdot, encapsulates this by stating that AI will not only change every job but will also catalyze a demand for creative skills. This isn’t mere techno-utopianism; it’s a call to redefine our skills portfolio and, quite possibly, our societal structure. As AI percolates through various industries, a certain level of adaptability is mandated. It’s not enough to be a master of one’s current role; there needs to be a fluency in the language of technology and an openness to adapt.

Bridging the Skills Gap: A Shared Responsibility

While companies may drive the demand for AI talent and related roles, the onus is also on educational systems, policymakers, and individuals to close the skills gap. This ties back to the UK’s focus on vocational training and reskilling, as well as the broader international need for upskilling that the World Bank and NCBI reports discuss. The need for a new social contract comes into sharp focus here, where all stakeholders have a part to play in adapting to the new job landscape. The Pace of Change: The WEF report underscores that 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025

Ethical Governance: Non-negotiable in the AI Equation

Whether we’re talking about AI-driven surveillance or automating scriptwriting in the media industry, ethical considerations are paramount. These aren’t just abstract philosophical dilemmas; they are the real-world pain points that lead to strikes and labor disputes. Ethical governance in the realm of AI is not an accessory but a necessity. This corroborates Politico’s opinion that societal anxieties about AI’s job impact require robust regulatory oversight.

The Crossroads of Labor, Technology, and Social Ethics: Navigating the AI-infused Landscape

The Artificial Intelligence revolution is not on the horizon; it’s already here, transforming industries, job markets, and societal norms. As someone who has deeply investigated these dynamics, most recently in my talk on preparing your workforce for the advent of Generative AI, I can affirm that the stakes are high. But are they insurmountable? Far from it. The narrative we’re collectively writing need not be one of dystopian decline, but rather a promising script filled with opportunities, solutions, and foresight.

A Dynamic Ecosystem

Our labor markets are far from static, but rather dynamic systems that swiftly adapt to rapid technological shifts. This intricate dance between AI and labor demands a strategic, multidimensional approach. In fact, I’ve previously delved into this very topic and I’m thrilled to amplify it further with some intriguing recent findings. Along with real-world events, like labor strikes, which act as social barometers, these collectively show how these undercurrents play out on the socio-economic stage.

The Way Forward: A Compass for the Unknown

Economic Adaptability: Continue the process of revisiting and readjusting economic models to include AI as a new variable. Consider more focused research into understanding its immediate and long-term impacts on job markets.

Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration: Initiate roundtables involving government bodies, industrial leaders, and worker representatives to craft policies and educational programs tailored to current needs.

Ethical Frameworks: Institute comprehensive guidelines on the ethical implementation of AI technologies, taking into account concerns from both the workforce and the consumer side.

Global Perspective: Maintain an international viewpoint by keeping abreast of AI trends and labor impacts worldwide, and adjusting strategies accordingly.

Iterative Learning: Given the rapid pace of AI development, continuous learning and adaptability should be ingrained in both individual and organizational mindsets.

Our labor markets are not static; they are dynamic ecosystems that react to a multitude of variables, with AI being the latest but certainly not the last. As we move forward, understanding this intricate relationship between AI and labor will be less like solving an equation and more like navigating a complex, ever-changing maze. It will require agility, foresight, and a commitment to ethical and equitable growth.

The essence of this roadmap lies in its adaptability. Economic models must be revisited and updated as AI variables evolve. Ethical frameworks, particularly ones that take cues from insightful documents like those from the World Bank and the European Parliament, should guide us in establishing universal guidelines. And let’s not forget—this is a marathon, not a sprint. Continuous, iterative learning is non-negotiable.

An Expanding Horizon

Let’s dispel the myth that AI is simply a disruptor that we must react to defensively. It’s far more than that; it’s a catalyst that broadens the scope of human creativity and enterprise. Those sounding alarm bells need a reality check. The market frictions we’re witnessing are not setbacks; they are negotiations with the future.

The choice isn’t between humans and machines; it’s between an inclusive future and an unequal one. And it’s clear where we should be steering this ship, not just in domestic waters but in the global expanse. The stakes may be high, but so are the opportunities for innovative business models, job creation, and ethical growth. 

The AI wave isn’t something to survive but to ride, to channel into a force that enriches us all. As we move forward, consider this not just as a technological inflection point, but as a defining moment for what we value as a society. After all, technology is not just a tool; it’s a mirror reflecting our collective ambitions, fears, and, most crucially, our choices.

Bottom Line: What’s the Real Story?

Let’s not kid ourselves; AI is a game-changer, but it’s not a zero-sum game. Labor strikes, whether they’re in tech or Tinseltown, tell us that there’s friction, sure. But they also highlight something bigger—the tectonic shifts happening in how we value work, skills, and even ethics.

Consider this: we might very well be at a fork in the road. One path leads to a future where AI augments human creativity and capability, fostering collaboration. The other is a dystopian screenplay where AI replaces human actors and writers, transforming them into relics of a bygone era. The choices made now, facilitated by negotiations and collective actions like these strikes, will determine which script gets greenlit. Companies aren’t just using AI to save a buck; they’re looking at it like the strategic oracle it is. It’s offering directions and drawing new maps for routes that we didn’t even know existed.

Strikes are more than just grievances; they’re societal flashpoints that trigger serious questions about where we’re headed—and based on what I’m seeing, it’s not backward; it’s toward a future rife with new possibilities.

AI isn’t just transforming job markets; it’s redefining them. The demands and tensions fueling strikes are not just emotional or economical; they’re structural. They force us to ask bigger questions, like what skills we value and where we’re steering the ship of industry innovation. And don’t forget—the ship isn’t sailing on a local pond; it’s venturing into international waters.

AI is far more than a disruptor; it’s a catalyst that’s driving us toward a future where roles, skills, and even the geography of opportunity are expanding. Strikes and labor tensions? Think of them as the market’s way of negotiating its terms with this brave new world. And it’s a negotiation that’s far from over.