Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong said that with technological advances reshaping the global economy, countries must ease workers’ anxieties by supporting displaced workers and equipping them with the right skills to take on new jobs. “We should work on the basis that technological disruption will create new jobs, even as old jobs are taken away,” he said. “On the factory floor, robots have replaced humans, but we still need people to programme and operate the machines.”
Mr Lee was speaking at the first working session of the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The future of work in the age of digital revolution is one of the key issues being discussed at this year’s summit. Mr Lee cited how in professions like accountancy and law, “tedious work has been computerised and automated”. “But the headcount remains, perhaps with computer engineers and programmers augmenting the accountants and lawyers but with professionals who are focusing on tasks requiring human judgment and interaction,” he added. It is therefore important to provide the workforce with the right education and skills to take up the new jobs, he said. But beyond practical support, workers also need psychological reassurance, said Mr Lee, adding that “for every person displaced, many more are worried and anxious”. He said governments need to intervene before workers are displaced. One way to do this is to “work with businesses and unions to re-skill and redeploy at-risk employees”, something Singapore is trying to do.
Mr Lee also called on world leaders to embrace change and not obstruct it, adding that companies and industries must adapt to new technologies and market conditions. “We cannot freeze the status quo, we will not succeed in preserving out-of-date arrangements, because the world will leave us behind,” he said. “Workers have to adopt the mindset of lifelong learning because that way, we do not yield to our anxieties, but instead we work hard to make our own futures.”
Mr Lee noted that other countries at the G20 Summit are also “putting people first”. He highlighted Italy’s and India’s national digital education plans and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which aim to prepare their citizens for the changing nature of work.