In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Customers Remain King. What About Workers?

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There is no doubt we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution – one in which digital technology is more than just an accessory. We are passed simply talking about the internet as a business enabler; instead, we are seeing the lines between the physical, biological, and digital worlds begin to blur. AI and automation are being integrated into the very fabric of our lives, as workers and consumers, such that we may not know when we are talking to a real person on the phone as in the case of Google Duplex, or whether the competition for our next job is human or android.

This is also a time marked by hugely accelerated change. Twenty years ago, smartphones and social media did not exist, and “digital targeting” was something you did in a video game. (Who remembers “Monkey Ball”?) There is no sign that this speed of revolution will let up. 

According to research by GfK Consumer Life, many Americans agree that change is good and that we need more of it – a sentiment that has dramatically increased since 2011. Technology is boosting efficiency and productivity, giving employees room to focus on more valuable tasks; but it can also be so effective that it makes humans expendable. Many of the jobs our children will hold do not exist yet, and many of today’s jobs are destined to become obsolete. Some argue however that AI will generate more jobs than it will kill.

So how can we prepare for this uncertain future, as workers and concerned consumers?

New generations, new expectations

At the World Economic Forum this year, Alibaba founder Jack Ma stressed the values of creativity and emotional IQ as critical to human success when competing with machines for the jobs of tomorrow. A new focus on future education and training will also be critical to preparing workers; this means re-training and re-skilling the current workforce to ready them for the changing environment.

There is also no doubt that the workforce itself will be much different from today. Looking at the youngest segment of American consumers – known alternately as the Now Generation, post-Millennials, Gen Z, Centennials, or the iGen – we see that these future employees represent the most diverse generation in US history (according to the US Census Bureau).

Compared to Millennials when they were the same age, this young generation is also highly ambitious. Being creative and imaginative is one of their core values, and technology is seamlessly embedded in their everyday lives. This means that they are tailor made for the flexible workplace, whether its self-motivated entrepreneurship or working at a distance for a traditional company.

According to GfK MRI research, roughly 12.9 million US employees (employed either full or part-time) report working primarily from a home office – up from 10.7 million just a decade ago. And GfK Consumer Life data shows that roughly 1 in 2 Americans want to work for themselves, with some of the prime reasons including the ability to be one’s own boss and flexibility in schedule and location.

But this flexibility may come at a price – a loss in job security. We might see more companies leverage AI to match employees with gig jobs in real time; platforms like Working Not Working already match freelancers and creative talent for various assignments. But there are often no benefits and no guarantees about tomorrow with such situations.

When workers become consumers

As consumers, we can now be targeted with offers so specific to our needs that we wonder if Google and Facebook can read our minds. Customization is no longer a perk, but a must-have, and consumers today are empowered to find the right products at the right prices as never before. Over 60% of Americans say they spend quite a lot of time researching brands before making a major purchase, thanks to real-time access to product information.

AI and robotics will continue to streamline the processes that deliver speed and value to consumers – and put growing pressure on traditional retailers to compete on price, convenience, and customer service. This may mean that there will be fewer of the retail jobs we already know, but also potentially a variety of opportunities that we cannot yet imagine.

The streamlining of tech devices working together to deliver seamless experiences is also something we might see replicated in the way businesses operate, with an increase in partnerships and collaboration to create new, unique consumer experiences. As digital devices enable communication in more and more ways, the hurdles that prevent co-working will slowly disappear.

This even applies to intercontinental business. Internationalism – learning about other people, cultures and equality – is among the differentiating values for the youngest consumers (the Now Generation), when compared to Millennials at the same life stage. Working with people in different cultures, environments and time zones will be a huge benefit for tomorrow’s workers – and likely a source of added competition in some cases.

The worry factor

In all of this, a key factor for workers and consumers is privacy. As news reports of hacked corporate databases have mounted, anxiety among digital consumers has grown. The youngest generations are by far the most concerned about the security of their personal information – and, perhaps in a related point, also more environmentally conscious. Doing things the right way will be a must for companies that want to earn and keep consumer trust; these concerns will be every employee’s responsibility in workplaces of tomorrow.

So where is this fourth industrial revolution leading us? Today’s world is just the tip of the iceberg — but it is surely an exciting time to see technology and its effects on many areas of our lives, as products and business models become more fluid. Consumers remain king – but workers may not always get the royal treatment. As employers and employees, we need to be sure we see tomorrow as clearly as possible – and start to take action today!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Jola: thank you for this excellent article. In writing on this topic last year (please see Will the Smart Machine Age Make Today’s Sales Skills Obsolete? http://customerthink.com/will-the-smart-machine-age-make-todays-sales-skills-obsolete/), I had similar discoveries. For the foreseeable future, humans will dominate jobs that demand creativity and innovation. As I learned recently, AI is still pretty cruddy at understanding whether a rooster crowing causes the sun to rise, or vice versa. That should give AI alarmists a little less to be alarmed about, and more to be hopeful for in terms of improving GDP and overall quality of life.

    Still, in the 4th industrial revolution, I see outcomes for customers differently from what you described. Their relative power in the ‘value chain’ has shrunk, and they are less kings and more paupers. Digital technology has enabled companies – not consumers – to amass unprecedented analytical power. Witness the global uproar over Facebook’s laxity in protecting consumer data, and how that benefited Cambridge Analytica (and catalyzed the company’s demise). In addition, the EU’s implementation of GDPR to combat the existential threat of too much information power in the hands of private corporations is emblematic of the widespread perception of where the power lies, and it is not with consumers.

    The potential for nefarious corporate use of customer data has never been greater than it is now. That suggests to me that the power pendulum has swung further from the customer and closer to the corporations that collect, store, share, and use their online data. In the 4th industrial revolution, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft are not just the comparative kings, they are the emperors.

  2. Hi Andrew, thank you so much for the kind words! Congratulations on your article as well, it is excellent and very thoughtful.

    I agree with you on AI still having ways to go in terms of accuracy, execution and improving people’s lives. Though, we will eventually get there. Thus, we will see a lot more progress in the coming years and AI with the purpose to improve people’s lives.

    When it comes to the 4th industrial revolution and the power of the consumer — the way I see it is that we are still going through a lot of “growing pains.” There are so many new technologies and with that new issues, including those of privacy. In fact the pace of change is so fast that the government and legislation has a lot of catching up to do. Thus, while for the time being the power is not with the consumers. I’m optimistic about new protections that can help shifting this dial back towards the consumer. Additionally, there might be technology, which can help put protections around consumer information, and much like with Blockchain, decentralize it. At least that’s my wishful thinking.
    At this time the corporate giants do hold a bit of power, but there are some key benefits to the consumer. We all enjoy hyper-personalized lattes and show recommendations.

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