The future of work for South Africans

What's needed is a new narrative about the future of work that might not rely on manufacturing and industrialisation.

The future of work is one of the hottest, most researched 'future of...' topics at the moment - and for very good reason.

Work, or more particularly the lack of it and how technology is changing it, is probably the most critical force affecting the future of South Africa.

Let me not bore the hell out of with you with figures that statisticians consider to be porn, but it's fair to say that a hell of a lot of South Africa's do not have formal employment and there is also very little hope that this shocking employment trend will just magically reverse itself into a more positive direction any time soon.

So when a report, published by a prestigious British futures think tank, highlighting some good research on what they think the future of work in sun-Saharan Africa might look like - we pull up a chair and brew a nice cup of coffee in anticipation.

What really struck me after having read the report - and downing a bottle of chilled white wine to calm my nerves - was the worrying realization that policymakers, who are apparently trying to create the conditions in SSA that would create more employment opportunities, have absolutely no imagination whatsoever.

The solutions that they have at hand are so old and tired and out-of-date it almost makes the job of forecasting the future of work in South Africa an easy one.

Without new ideas and some fresh imaginative thinking - the future of work in South Africa looks terrible.

It's more of the same - more misery, more unemployment, more corruption.  

Perhaps this paragraph from the report captures this laziness:

'Indeed, tension exists between the traditional model of economic development—manufacturing-led industrialisation that stimulates formal job creation—and an alternative, emerging model anchored on technology as a shortcut to a service-based economy, with opportunities in digital work and entrepreneurship driven by jobseekers. The key, as one expert stakeholder pointed out in an interview with RSA researchers, is to create a viable narrative about the future of work that might not rely on manufacturing and industrialisation. Instead of focusing solely on attracting manufacturing jobs, which is a “very old industrial era”, there should be a plan to pivot to other sectors, including sectors like the green and care economies.'

What's needed if South Africans are going to have a better shot at the future -  is a new story of Us.

A new vision that is not dragging old, outdated stories of rent-seeking industrialisation heroes from the past that no longer makes logical sense.

So in summary then (so that you don't need to read the report) - the future of work for South Africans looks pretty shitty if we are relying on the current unimaginative, uninspired crop of policymakers to create the right conditions for better prospects.

South Africans themselves are creative and through the miracle of the informal sector are kinda making a plan, but without a new, updated, more imaginative, and forward-looking plan of action that considers new commercial, opportunities that are literally all around us - nothing will change.

Like so many examples, there is the opportunity for the region to literally leapfrog from where we currently are towards a far-more relevant and future-embracing economic design, but for some reason, the people in power seem to be reading the wrong books and ignoring websites (like this one) who are highlighting alternative pathways.

Read the report here (if you want):

The future of work in Sub-Saharan Africa
This report explores trends shaping the future of work in Sub-Saharan Africa and examines the challenges that countries in the region need to address to ensure all workers are able to access good work.